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CIOs in search of IT simplicity

Kim S. Nash | June 29, 2012
No company sets out to create convoluted processes supported--sometimes thwarted--by layers of overly complicated technology.

No company sets out to create convoluted processes supported--sometimes thwarted--by layers of overly complicated technology. But too often, that's what we face. Applications that require days of training but still generate streams of calls to the help desk. Databases and tools too old for vendors to support, but too vital for CIOs to shut down. Data centers choked with servers and wiring, connected to more just like it.

You know why it happens: Old technology builds up as departments move to the next new thing. Mergers and acquisitions bring someone else's IT to your doorstep, adding layers to your layers. Shadow IT runs parallel to sanctioned IT. CIOs fail to set or enforce standards. And all along, consolidation and integration projects that cost money lose the struggle for funding to customer-facing projects that promise to make money.

You also know this is no good. Such baggage takes money and time to maintain, says Frank Wander, founder of the IT Excellence Institute and former CIO of Guardian Life Insurance. "The costs to keep complexity running crowd out investment dollars," Wander says. "That affects agility." A grim cycle.

Simplicity, on the other hand, promises clarity, speed and flexibility, not to mention lower costs in IT and other areas of the company, says Kevin Humphries, senior vice president of IT at FedEx. Humphries opened a brand-new data center that will be the $39 billion company's main technology facility. Simplification underpins the entire project, including virtualizing servers, shrinking the number of applications and re-thinking the cooling systems, Humphries says. It was engineered to be one-third the size of the one it will replace. "The largest theme we're working on in IT right now is complexity reduction."

At McDonald's, software undergoes CIO David Weick's simplicity test: If he can, with no training, sit down and make it do what it's supposed to do, then it is good software.

So important is simplicity to General Electric that CIO Charlene Begley has made it one of four strategic imperatives for IT. She knows how insidious complexity can be, even in the most disciplined organization. In her 24 years at the giant conglomerate, Begley has been CEO of four of its six current divisions, including the $8.6 billion Home and Business Solutions unit, which she runs today. Former GE chairman and CEO Jack Welch famously urged his leaders to clean out their attics occasionally. It's that time again. Begley wants to reduce the number of GE data centers by half and the number of ERP systems by 85 percent by 2016.

"Simplification is now prioritized. It's funded. It's not scoped down," she says.

But it is difficult to achieve at GE, FedEx, McDonald's or anywhere else. Together, CIOs and business leaders must figure out what needs to go, what needs to change and how to finance and staff the project. Then they must develop plans to stop complexity from snaking its way back in.


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