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The Case Against Complexity

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The root cause of IT complexity in business is easily identifiable, and its elimination from IT systems, including those concerning IP telephony, is highly plausible. Yet, extenuating factors among leading technology providers remain an obstacle.

A much-discussed white paper, “The IT Complexity Crisis: Danger & Opportunity,” set off alarm bells when it posited that the cost of IT failures tops more

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The root cause of IT complexity in business is easily identifiable, and its elimination from IT systems, including those concerning IP telephony, is highly plausible. Yet, extenuating factors among leading technology providers remain an obstacle.

A much-discussed white paper, “The IT Complexity Crisis: Danger & Opportunity,” set off alarm bells when it posited that the cost of IT failures tops more than $1 trillion annually in the U.S. alone.

IT failure is a worldwide phenomenon, wasting huge sums of money that could otherwise be channeled into economic growth. More than half of IT projects were “at risk,” the 2009 report said. Unfortunately, in the years since the report’s publication, nothing much has changed, said Roger Sessions, the report’s author, who is CTO of ObjectWatch and an expert in IT complexity analytics.

“I’d like to say that the paper has made a big difference in how IT is being developed, but unfortunately, we still have not successfully addressed this issue,” Sessions said in an interview earlier this year.

Sessions, then and now, paints an ominous picture, saying that although he identified poor internal communications between business and IT as a potential culprit, he did not see it as the primary driver in the rise of such failures. He believes that there is no real evidence of such a dramatic worsening of communication between these two bodies in the last three years.

On the contrary, in qualitative research ShoreTel has conducted and in many articles in the business and IT press, there is good reason to believe that the IT/business relationship has greatly matured, with IT professionals more attuned to their strategic role and more aligned to the business goals than ever.

No. There is one major culprit leading us to a potential meltdown in IT, according to Sessions:

“The almost certain culprit is complexity. Actually, complexity is indirectly related to functionality, in that a 25 percent increase in functionality increases complexity by 100 percent (Glass’s Law). However complexity is even more impacted by system organization. So complexity goes up as functionality increases, goes down as functionality is partitioned, but then goes up again as connections are made between systems. The overall complexity of a system is a delicate balance between all three of
these factors.”

His analysis points out that complexity has a linear relationship with system failure, concluding that the more complex a system, the more difficult it is to work with (and the more difficult it is, therefore, to leverage its potential capabilities). Logically, complexity drives up the cost for a business to operate such a system. Presumably, this cost is not only attributed to IT failure, but to the resources required to support the system’s complexity, as well as to the service and support provided by the originator of the complex system—the vendor.

However, Sessions challenges Glass’ law, pointing out the absence of one important variable: organization of the functionality. He submits that there are many examples of highly functional systems that are organized more simply than others with less functionality. This premise, he believes, correlates to the day-to-day experience of IT professionals: i.e., that the level of complexity is driven upwards by how the functionality or functions are organized in the system.

Rather than seeing this as a pessimistic scenario, the author draws attention to what he sees as the good news. His optimism is palpable: he posits that our ability to identify the culprit shows that addressing the problem is equally possible. Once we can rise to the challenge and remove complexity from systems, he sees a number of benefits, both in terms of financial reward and in how we work:

  • Reducing procurement complexity
  • Helping small and midsize companies compete on more projects
  • Increasing business agility
  • Improving collaboration in the workplace
  • Delivering IT systems on time and within business expectations

 

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