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How to reduce IT complexity and increase agility

Howard Baldwin | Aug. 6, 2015
Overlapping, outdated systems cost money, hobble innovation and confuse users. 5 execs share strategies for simplifying your tech stack.

Consolidating a panoply of old systems not only gives you technology that's easier to audit, it also makes it easier to roll out new systems. "When you have so many points of integration and dependency, it makes it that much more difficult to find out how and where errors occur," says Henry Jenkins, director of information services at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, Calif. "By reducing complexity, you have fewer mistakes and more repeatable outcomes with little variance. When something does go wrong, less complexity makes it easier to figure out what went wrong, correct the root cause, and move on."

In the healthcare industry, the conversion to electronic medical records is a challenge. "But we have an opportunity to have a more complete medical record that follows the patient," says Jenkins. "Now through data integration and analytics, we can reduce complexity. Instead of rooting around in twenty different departments and 100 different spreadsheets, we can improve outcomes by making better decisions with more accurate information."

How to keep complexity from coming back
Unless there is a concerted effort, usually done through enterprise architects, to ensure there's an appropriate swap of applications -- that is, an old application is actually replaced, not augmented -- complexity will spread like mold in an old bathroom. And it will do it in the same way -- behind the walls and under the floors, unseen and insidious. That's why CIOs who do the work of simplification must also put in place safeguards against that seepage.

"If you don't have a proper function to manage it, complexity will come back again," NBCUniversal's Banerjea warns. That's why he brings his enterprise architecture team into every budget meeting with a "living, breathing framework of our inventory across all our units." If one division proposes something new, the EA team is there to identify commonalities. With visibility across the company's tech stacks, "We can see when we can leverage an application for multiple uses and avoid starting from scratch."

CIOs have to bring a lot of capabilities to their job, but in the case of fighting complexity, the operative word is courage. "You have to be committed to dealing with the pain," says Capgemini's Burger. "You don't do it tepidly. You have to have a full commitment to making the change, because it will help you move to a fundamentally new place. Change management isn't tied to an event anymore. It has to be a core ability for CIOs."

Koehler concurs. "People get us into this mess, and it becomes hard to get us out, because we get attached emotionally to the systems we build. It becomes painful to go through the exercise of decommissioning or consolidating. It boils down to having courage -- the courage to call somebody's baby ugly, turn it off, and force good decisions throughout the life of that new system."


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