It's an adage as old as time (or at least as old as the invention of the personal computer): Technology is destined to cycle constantly between complexity and simplicity.
Remember the hassle of attaching peripherals in the days before USB ports? Remember the anguish of developing applications for competing OS interfaces before HTML? We fixed those problems, and whaddya know, we moved on to others.
"Complexity grows over time," says Bryson Koehler, chief information and technology officer (CITO) of The Weather Company in Atlanta. "Systems are built to do one thing, and then they're modified, morphed and bastardized to do things they were never meant to do."
Complexity occurs when technologies overlap one another -- "when you add new stuff but keep the old instead of getting rid of it," agrees Dee Burger, North America CEO of Capgemini Consulting.
Even as recently as three years ago, Burger says, "people thought they could do massive replacements of technology" -- say, move everything to SaaS applications in the cloud -- "but now we're seeing way more adding of technology rather than replacing." Just consider how many new collaboration tools the enterprise has embraced without replacing or reducing email.
The result can be a tangle of overlapping, redundant systems that costs money, slows innovation and hinders organizations from identifying new business opportunities.
"I've been in discussions with CIOs who want to replace something, but they can't be sure of what would happen if they did," Burger says. They're reluctant to find out what kind of chaos would ensue. But "sometimes you just have to turn something off and see who yells."
Computerworld spoke with five CIOs who did just that and lived to tell the tale. Read on for their advice on how to tackle complexity and emerge with a more efficient, agile and auditable technology stack.
The tangled webs we weave
How does complexity grow in an organization -- and why? Sometimes there are demands from the business to move quickly, but not necessarily practically or prudently. Sometimes there are systems left over from mergers, acquisitions and internal reorganizations that haven't been sunsetted. Sometimes systems multiply as CIOs try to keep the lights on and innovate simultaneously.
"Complexity is the result of a diversity of footprints, of tools, of workforce," says Christopher Rence, CIO of Digital River, a provider of e-commerce, payments and marketing services for merchants. Rence knows whereof he speaks: He's lived through three acquisitions in the last four years, and has seen the residue of the 20 acquisitions that the company has experienced since 1994.
"One company we acquired had nothing but white-label hardware. It didn't have an asset value, but it was doing a lot of processing," Rence recalls. In preparation for conducting a strategic migration of the data through a gateway into a SaaS solution, "we had to do a full inventory of what those homegrown products were doing," says Rence. "It required understanding some of the undocumented knowledge. We had to sit down with the programmer who originally wrote the integration scripts and ask him to create industry-standard processes and APIs so they could be reusable and repeatable."
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