Overcomplexity

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Someone has sent me a link to a quite emotional but interesting article by Tim Bray on why the world of enterprise systems delivers so many failed projects and sucky software while the world of web startups excels at producing great software fast. Tim makes some very valid points about technology, culture and approach to running projects. It is true that huge upfront specs, fixed bid contracts and overall waterfall approach are indeed culprits behind most failed IT projects, and that agile, XP and other key trends of recent years can help.
However, I don’t think they can really cure the problem, because we are facing a deeper issue here: the overall overcomplexity in our civilization.

Main drivers of this overcomplexity are bloated states and economy dominated by corporations. Both states and corporations have IT systems today – and the complexity of those IT systems has to reflect the complexity of organisms and processes they try to cover.

The IT system for a national health care system or a state run compulsory social security “insurance” is a very good example. It must be a complex mess because what it is trying to model and run is a complex, overbloated mess – in most cases a constantly changing mess. And it can’t be launched early because it is useless unless it covers the whole scope of what it is supposed to do: because most of what it covers is regulations and laws you can’t deliver a system that meets half of the regulations or 10% – it can’t be used. By the very nature of the domain the system has to be launched as a finished whole.

Plus, on top of all that, comes the scale. If you can imagine a completely privatized health care no system will ever cover all citizens – each doctor, hospital, insurer etc. will cover just its clients, a subset of the population. A system like NHS has to handle all of the UK’s population by design.

Same problem with corporations, especially those that have been around for long (by long I mean decades, not years): scale and mentality. You just can’t manage 75 thousand people easily, especially if they are spread around the globe, in a simple and agile way.

Just think of all accounting requirements global corporations have to handle with their IT systems – but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Whole world economy floats in a sea of legislation – legislative diarrhea of the last decades produced a legal swamp which is a nightmare to understand let alone model a system to comply with it. For a global corporation multiply that by all the countries it is in and stick some international regulations on top of this. This is something corporate systems have to cope with.

What is also important – much of that overcomplexity is computer driven: it would not have been possible if not for the existence of IT systems and computers that run them.

Take VAT tax – it is so complex I always wonder what idiots gave the Nobel prize to the moron who invented it (well, I used to wonder about that when Nobel prize had any credibility). Clearly, implementing it is completely impossible without computers & systems everywhere.

Same about the legal diarrhea I mentioned – I think it can be largely attributed to Microsoft Word. Ever wondered why the EU Constitution (now disguised as “Lisbon Treaty”) has hundreds of pages while the US Constitution is simple and elegant? Well, they couldn’t have possibly written a couple hundred page document with a quill pen which forced them to produce something concise.

But going back to the key issue of whether the corporate IT systems can be better: they can, but a deeper shift in thinking is needed. Instead of creating huge, complex systems corporate IT should rather be a cloud of simple, small systems built and maintained to provide just one simple service (exactly what web startups are doing – each of them provides simple a service, together they create a complex ecosystem). However, this shift would have to occur on the organizational level too – large organizations with complex rules should be replaced with small, focused entities with simple rules for interaction between them.

But to get there we would need a world-wide “agile adoption” reaching well beyond IT. But that means a huge political change, that is nowhere on the horizon. Unless, of course, one other enabler of our civilization’s overcomplexity fades: cheap, abundant energy.

  1. sneer

    development of humankind is far ahead computer systems complexity. And, I guess, humans solved the problem of overcomplexity some time ago.If assumed, the corporation is a huge brain that deals with other brains (huge and small), we could see specialization: divisions, departments and so on. If you go deeply to the clerk who sits behind blue screen of a computer, you will realize easily, his work is very simple, his decisions are not very significant and may not destroy the whole brain. The substitution of this specialized application may be done easily, as well its development. And so on…

    This is how, computer aided systems probably will go.

    Reply

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