Traditionally, discussions of IT gravitate towards the idea of managing complexity. You read about IT complexity in vendor marketing materials, consultants offer to help you manage complexity, and people like me write about it in the IT press. Complexity is something that many IT professionals have come to accept in their daily work, but what if we turned the complexity discussion on its head and focused our efforts on managing simplicity? Managing simplicity means seeing through some of the complexity hype and making a concerted effort to look for the simplest solution to IT problems. In my experience simple solutions often deliver value at a reasonable cost, whereas many complex ones produce only headaches.
The managing-simplicity idea came to me while I was participating in a panel about enterprise RSS applications at the recent RSS Winterfest online event. As a media and publishing company, one of InfoWorld’s key challenges is syndicating content with business partners. In preparing my presentation, I realized that RSS is an excellent example of a tool in the arsenal for managing simplicity. RSS is simple to produce in any development environment, the cost of producing RSS content is negligible in most cases, and it’s widely understood as a standard. There are a number of feature-rich but relatively complex XML specs and protocols (for example, ICE and NewsML) that handle content syndication of all types, but most of the time InfoWorld only needs to syndicate very simple information with our partners. ICE and NewsML will work, but RSS is simpler and easier, so we use RSS whenever we can and try to limit the complexity. By actively pushing our syndication standards toward simplicity, we don’t avoid complexity altogether, but we do avoid as much as we can. When we encourage our partners to do the same, we become evangelists for simplicity in IT, which hopefully makes things easier for everyone.
The temptation always exists in IT to over-engineer solutions to simple problems. When I first started at InfoWorld, I was handed a quarter-million dollar quote for a portal solution from a vendor who will remain nameless. In this particular case, the need for a portal or portal-like functionality had not even been identified within the company, but someone in my group had been seduced by a vendor. After sitting through a pitch about how our employees could receive customized and up-to-date industry news, stock quotes, and about how they would be able to share knowledge with one another, I spoke to our employees about their needs. The primary request was for easy access to traffic analysis for InfoWorld.com. I killed the portal project, put up an Apache server running Linux on existing hardware, and hand-coded HTML links to our Web site traffic analysis software.
We’ve since outgrown that level of simplicity and need to focus more on enabling collaboration among decentralized teams. Although the quarter-million dollar portal would probably fulfill our current needs, I’m planning to experiment with Movable Type instead. With a centralized Weblog publishing system that automatically pushes out RSS content, InfoWorld employees can post information to a company Weblog, consume the updates with an RSS news aggregator, and search the knowledge base it creates. Not a full-fledged "portal" perhaps, but a simple and elegant knowledge management application that solves a set of problems in a very simple way (and at a cost of about $150 for a commercial license plus a little staff time).
In the end, one CTO’s simplicity is another CTO’s complexity. With no Unix sysadmins on your staff, my simple Linux/Apache solution becomes your complex nightmare. Define simplicity for yourself -- it pays to pursue it in every decision you make.