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Complexity in IT

Why is IT so difficult?

A friend of mine, a very experienced and senior non-executive director, asked me why, in all the organisations he knows, IT is the area that causes the most difficulty. There are several common explanations, but I am not sure they add up. This leads me to a different explanation, with interesting consequences.

IT causes difficulty in many ways, for example:

  • results not achieved on time, not what was expected or promised, and not within budget
  • catastrophic failure of critical systems, or loss of data
  • systems hard to use, difficult to change, not integrated with other systems, expensive to maintain, hard to replace
  • problems with staff, and with suppliers: poor quality, high turnover, unreliable.

So my friend can be reasonably confident that a five year multi-billion pound engineering project will be completed successfully, while a one year million pound IT project is unlikely to run to plan. Why is that?

Possible explanations:

  1. IT is changing so fast that whatever you plan is obsolete within a short time
  2. People in IT generally lack professional training and skills
  3. People in the business don't understand IT, and the people in IT don't understand the business.

I have doubts about these explanations. They have a superficial truth, but for me they don't explain the level of difficulty in managing IT successfully.

1. The rate of change

The IT industry is constantly producing new things, that's true. But in other respects the rate of change is fairly slow. The way we do computing is not fundamentally very different from say ten years ago. Many of the same companies are selling many of the same products. If you started a project five years ago, no matter how large, it is difficult to see what technology has changed sufficiently to cause the project to fail.

2. Training and skills

Because things in IT go wrong, it is easy retrospectively to identify faults in the skills of the individuals as the cause, but it is not necessarily so. When things are difficult or impossible to achieve even the highest level of skill may not be sufficient. It is hard to imagine that in general the training and skills of people in IT are lower than in Sales, Marketing, Procurement, Distribution. Maybe those areas just aren't as difficult, and so the managers appear to be more successful.

3. Understanding

There is a high threshold in getting to grips with the language of IT, certainly. But at the level at which IT and other people in the business need to communicate this really should not be relevant. Medicine has its own language, but doctors don't seem to have the same problem communicating with patients. I suspect that problems in understanding are more to do with trust than with language.

So if these explanations don't account for the difficulty with IT what are we left with? My view is that the root cause is complexity. IT systems are the link between a human intention and a computer chip. Human intentions are imprecise and hard to define, but chips are strictly binary. The layers of software in between intention and chip are hugely complex. To produce a predicable outcome is extremely difficult.

If it is true that the root cause of difficulty in managing IT is complexity then there are two consequences. The first is that we should aim to minimise the complexity in every possible way; and the second is that we need people who manage complexity very well.

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