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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.

McDonald's uses times of major operating system upgrades to reduce the number of applications and tools. When it recently moved from Windows XP to Windows 7, the company eliminated various personal productivity applications that employees had brought in. "It would have cost us money to make them work on the new OS," Weick says. IT goes through a similar examination when making changes to infrastructure.

Degree of simplicity is an important criteria for McDonald's when IT evaluates a new product. How easy the product is to implement and how fast IT can deploy it matter as much as functionality, he says.

Like a new car, a new IT system starts to decay the moment you turn it on. Servers, laptops and smartphones are machines, after all, and software gets gummed up as it takes in data and interacts with other software. Aging technology requires extra nurturing.

Because every piece of IT has a rate of decay, Wander says, CIOs should create a life plan for each one. This helps keep down how many layers of technology have to be integrated. It also helps companies avoid getting stuck with technology dregs, he says. PowerBuilder was once a hot development tool. Then Sybase, itself a declining database vendor, bought PowerBuilder and the tool lost momentum, he says. "If you don't deal with that complexity, you end up with systems difficult to maintain because you can't get people. Then it's an operational risk."

At McDonald's, Weick's team categorizes technologies as explore and innovate, commercialize and deploy, or enhance and maintain. IT works with business leaders to set investment levels and plans for how each system will move through the cycle. Continuous pruning is a challenge for CIOs, he says. "It's easier to add something new than retire something old. It builds up like plaque in a coronary artery."

Keeping Simplicity Alive

One reason simplification fails, says Humphries at FedEx, is that people don't realize that simplifying is actually pretty complicated. His new data center is supposed to be simpler to run for the IT group and give business units the ability to change course quickly, to get ahead of market events, he says. Building such a facility involves many decisions about technology and design. "You would be shocked to see the walls and walls and walls of excruciating detail to make something very complex end up simplified."

Maintaining simplicity as a state of mind, as Wander envisions, requires that you don't underestimate the ongoing effort involved. After all, doing business brings fresh complexity to IT every day, he says. Mergers and acquisitions won't stop. Nor will rogue IT in departments that circumvent the rules. At the same time, corporate budgets are finite. The noble and concrete reasoning behind a proposed project to consolidate servers or inventory IT assets may not win against a proposal to expand operations in a growing customer market, he says.

Even when simplification projects are rejected, the IT should work that way anyway, he says. "If you're a good CIO, you're doing this all the time."


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