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Complexity, Complexity Everywhere

Complexity, Complexity Everywhere

Posted by Peter Ransom onin IT Infrastructure and Operations

In a technical presentation the other day I happened to be considering a range of options being shown to me, and as we went through another iteration of some huge number of variants, my mind wandered off. Not entirely professional I grant you, but nevertheless my thoughts on the complexity of it all reminded me of anold comedy sketch from the 1980s. You may know the guys; the Two Ronnies.

In the sketch, Ronnie Corbett (the small one) walks into a classic English Pub with his girlfriend, explains this is a “Real Ale Pub” and proceeds to ask for a “Shagwells Old Original”. “Real Ales” often have imaginative names, and the gag is that Ronnie Barker, the bartender, only sells “Real Water” now at the height of the ’80s mineral water boom, also with equally imaginative names and variants. Barker hilariously rattles off a list of dozens of types of water in a constant flow of words, as was his trademark, before asking Corbett if he wants ice; you can guess the rest.

Today, the sheer complexity, variety and silliness of it seems to serve as a metaphor for our industry today. Amazing what goes through your mind after being Power-Pointed.

As we all know, these meetings always go like this:

So you want this business functionality. Do we buy it in and run it ourselves, or do we have it as SaaS?

If we do buy it in, should we host on our data center, in the public cloud, the private cloud or perhaps in the co-located one?

What about using the PaaS or IaaS, and where do we put the data?

If you add up each of the variations, the odds of getting the right combination are high (very high) against you.
Now I know we all shout out “but you have a Technology Strategy don’t you”? Of course, except nowadays the strategies are about guiding principles, or as I like to think, sometimes it’s the EA function hedging their bets, as they don’t really know either; how can they?

The challenge is, we’re being asked to confirm the right technical solution, with a guarantee it will work, at a set price and do it all right now at the beginning of the project. It’s impossible to be so accurate of course, as often there are many solutions. It’s another example of having to delicately work through what the risks are, where the costs are uncertain and get the necessary understanding and buy in for this across the company.

Nowadays as the professional IS department we need to work deeply with the business areas, early enough to help guide and allow them to understand the impacts and issues in an iterative way. If we don’t we will miss opportunities, perhaps even undermine the business and cause cost issues. No longer are our challenges mostly technical; they are political. We need to gain the trust of our colleagues by delivering systems that work so that they allow us to work deeply within their organization.

At present, we in IS in Oxfam are working very closely with a number of departments to optimize their internal structures, moving work and people into and also out of IS such that we have optimized operations with the aim to have a sleek, highly effective organization.

This requires trust, some hard discussions and common beliefs that it can be done, but its way more complex than just managing the technology. We’ve only just achieved this after delivering some key projects and working hard at the basics. Our satisfaction scores are the highest they have ever been, but it’s not all perfect, and we do make errors. We have improved our communications, we hold our hands up when we get it wrong and work hard to correct issues quickly. And although I wouldn’t say its perfect, most people see that we are trying, succeeding and being open and honest about our activities.

A successful IT leader today needs to be accomplished in people management and politics and still be able to deliver. The fact of the matter is, we are in very demanding times, with challenging customers requiring an inspired skill set from the management team.

No doubt you have changed already. But what about your team? Are they changing and becoming politically sensitive across all levels in the organization? And before I hear, its nothing new, you’re right of course, only it is different. As The Two Ronnies put it, “If I can’t have the Shagwells Old Original, I’ll have the Windemere water.”

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