Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Art of Synthetic Simplicity

IT is in the business of creating synthetic simplicity. We’re called upon to unravel complexity and deliver services that improves productivity or improves organizational knowledge. The nature of IT’s work lives in the world of abstraction and representation. This is in contrast to other business units that interact with their environment in very concrete terms. This means that the challenge of relating to IT isn’t bound up the technical components that make up the concrete portion of IT’s work. Every industry is complicated. In terms of technology IT is no different than a mechanic or an electrician. Every specialization has a vocabulary and perspective that requires initiation to understand. What separates IT is the abstractive nature work they must perform as well. In a sense, it’s the difference between talking to a geometer (such as a carpenter or architect) and a topologist. And yes, there are applications for topology in the business.  At least with a geometer, their work is rooted in familiar concepts such as distance and angles. Compare that with trying to discuss with someone who performs a chunk of their work utilizing homologies. IT is home to the topologists and philosophers of the enterprise. And, as I will make the case, the ecologists as well.

Let’s take a fairly universal experience as an example: building a student registration application. Most everyone in the United States has experienced student registration. It is, for the most part, a straight-forward experience. Students have requirements to graduate, classes fill those requirements, classes have rooms, classes have teachers, teachers have students. But once one starts managing students, one must discuss managing teachers, and once one is managing teachers, one begins to touch payroll and benefits. Not to mention scheduling. There’s also weird circumstances to handle as well. What about teachers that are also students (if you’re a university)? What about pre-requisites? Sabbaticals? Student-teaching gigs? Complexity creeps into the room and takes a seat next to you. Its invisible but palpable grin bears down on you. You might end up with a case of scope creep. This is going to take longer than everyone expected. The end result will need to be a simple interface. A package of workflows. A suite of reports. The end user will need to experience synthetic simplicity. There’s a reason that it’s a rite of passage for an IT worker to design a student registration application.

What it will take to get there is a team of business analysts working with your department, interviewing subject matter experts and holding charrettes. Business architects, programmers, and database modelers all working to build ontologies, business logic, business domains, and other attendant artifacts that reflect a perspective regarding your business. They’re building a system to absorb the complexity of student registration. This work of unraveling complexity and then repackaging it in an ordered and maintainable system requires a nexus of collaborative creativity. This is generally something the business has a very hard time relating to. The work is esoteric and abstract.

In a very real sense, complexity hasn’t been reduced by IT, it’s been displaced out of the business and into the realm of IT. This is good news though, complexity scales much better within IT systems in comparison to manual and unmanaged processes utilizing human middleware. At scale, it’s certainly less costly although not always in the sense that it will reduce your operational expenditures. There’s a number of ways to be costly outside of mere OPEX.

To manage scope creep and avoid building a monolithic and monstrous enterprise application, boundaries around the application must be created.  Modules for communicating with other systems must be built. This means that the subtle work of IT is bound up in the act of naming; that is, the drawing of distinction between systems and the background environment.

So take the student registration application built and managed by IT and add to the mix a payroll and benefits application, a curriculum management application, so on and so forth and you can see emergent complexity begin to unfold. IT doesn’t merely manage systems and applications, they manage a sophisticated ecosystem. And right it should be because it’s an abstracted mirror of the enterprise. It is the representative ecosystem of the organization along with its entities and relationships. Tending to good stewardship, IT must rely on practices such as application portfolio management and governance.  They must be baked into IT’s processes and procedures. This is a big deal. Unfortunately, it stands in stark contrast to the order-placement relationship we have had with IT in the past. It’s also quite different from our own individual experiences as consumers. Quite frankly, it just looks like red tape. While tempting to dismiss, the imperative of a healthy ecosystem cannot be ignored.

Managing the ecosystem of enterprise applications that drive the business is a complex affair in its own right. Analogous concepts such as dealing with invasive species and other disruptive elements like pollution hold true for IT as well. What manifests in response are processes and procedures for ensuring that the healthy ecosystem the business has created with IT isn’t put at risk. Concretely put, it’s not unlike making sure that seeds and plants from Hawaii don’t leave with you when you depart. The unplanned introduction of new systems can, over time, consume disproportionate resources resulting in the inhibition of innovation elsewhere. One of my favorites examples is a training database for a major pharmaceutical company. Built by someone outside of IT, it eventually contained millions of rows of training data.  It was a three table Access database joined on the comments field. IT wasn’t looped in until it was on the verge of collapse. Had it collapsed, the penalties from the FDA would’ve been immense. Additionally, the media would’ve pilloried the organization. This was a real thing. Imagine the cost associated with it. This is the stuff of legends.

As with all things, governance should be elegant and graceful. In practice, it gets a bit messy. But evolution is messy. It is IT’s responsibility to avoid a Kafka-esque nightmare. It’s the enterprise’s responsibility to understand and communicate their problems, working with IT as partners to find solutions. Mature businesses leverage IT’s unique lateral position, perspective, and skills to lead. An indicator of a organization’s prospects begins with a look at the health of the IT department and how well they manage the business’ application ecosystem.