Tech's increasing complexity -- and how to manage it

Is tech becoming more complicated? Yes and no -- but a manager with a handle on enterprise technical architecture and unstructured data can go far

Dear Bob ...

As a member of IT management, I'm beginning to wonder if we have created a computing environment that is starting to become unsustainable from the perspective of complexity.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Enterprise Windows blogger J. Peter Bruzzese gives you an inside look at the duties of a Microsoft enterprise architect. | Keep up on career advice with Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

As I talk to other managers in hiring positions, they indicate that it is increasingly difficult to find good talent. If you look at this like a pyramid, with the best and brightest being at the top of the heap, it seems like we inch closer and closer to the top, with fewer and fewer people who are competent enough to effectively deal with all of this "stuff." Thus, the competition for talent is not focused on the top 10 percent or even the top 5 percent of talent; it is perhaps the top 3 percent or less.

Certainly, specialties can help with this, where focused areas of technology can narrow the scope of needed competencies, but most companies in this economy do not seem to want to broaden their talent pool. For me, I guess I'm looking at all of the "stuff" that we have and feel that it's just too much.

I am worried about how all of this will look in 10 years. How do we keep projected 3D images of salespeople from unknown companies out of our offices? Easy -- get the newest satellite 3D blocker/filter from IBM/Cisco/Apple/Intel/HP and rest easy again! Crazy example, but you get my point.

Can we handle it or will we have many more opportunities for unplanned outages, nagging performance issues, or nixing technical decisions because we can not utilize the newest stuff properly?

Any thoughts?

- Barely Managing

Dear Managing ...

What strikes me about your question is that it has two very different answers, depending on which way you're facing.

In one direction is complexity that's the result of accidental architecture -- information technology that's either accreted in the organization one piece at a time or that's been glued together in chunks as the consequence of mergers and acquisitions that weren't followed by a cleanup phase.

Enterprise technical architecture management amounts to describing information technology as a series of solutions to different problems, presented and tracked in an organized way. Accidental architecture happens when companies implement technology without an organized view, and it generally leads to a polynomial explosion in complexity, as a large number of redundant parts are connected with one-off interfaces.

Accidental architecture has another characteristic: Many of its symptoms are quite apparent to the business at large.

Moving to a planned enterprise technical architecture takes a lot of adjustment and even more investment. The payoff is moving away from the polynomial complexity explosion to something that's closer to linear. There's a lot more to be said. If I try to say it, though, this post will turn into a book-length essay.

That's the first direction. The second direction is the increasing scope of the number of different problems information technology can solve. For example, when I first started in the game, IT's scope was limited to dealing with information that can be organized into tables; at the time we called the suckers "files" and "fields." You may know it as structured data.

Now, a very important component of what IT manages is unstructured -- documents, spreadsheets, media, content, knowledge -- that doesn't neatly fit into rows and columns. Add a whole new class of problem being solved and voila! More complexity.

Handle the new capabilities well and the complexity is manageable. Handle it through accidental architecture and it can get out of hand even more thoroughly than when all we managed were databases, screens, and reports.

Make sense?

- Bob

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