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22 January 2008

Work less

By Andrew Clifford

Don't work harder. Don't even work smarter. Work less.

Before I started Minimal IT, I felt that there was something fundamentally wrong about IT, but I did not know what it was. I decided to explore it, one step at a time, by writing a weekly newsletter.

I started writing about what I felt was the core of the problem. IT is ridiculously expensive, but most IT activity and spend does not deliver value.

We run huge expensive projects to replace existing systems. The business requirement for the projects is often to replicate the functionality of the old systems. Where's the value in that?

We implement generations of systems with similar functionality laid over each other, with interfaces keeping them in step. There is a multiplication of cost, but no increase in value.

We implement impressive technical infrastructures, such as storage arrays, server clusters and middleware. But we often do not need it: most data is redundant, and many servers run at only a few percent utilisation.

I tried to guess how much of IT activity and spend really adds value. I started as a programmer, and I've always had a hands on approach to IT. I know it does not take much to build a database or write a program. My personal estimate is that 90% (or more) of our IT is waste: we get value from 10% of the work, 10% of the code, 10% of the hardware, 10% of the data, 10% of the cost. The rest is at best supporting, but more usually just stuff that gets in the way.

I felt that we do not need to work harder, or even to work smarter. We need to be better at identifying what we do not have to do (the 90%). We need to work less.

We are very efficient at IT supply. We are good at delivering services, running projects, adding new features and implementing new systems. But IT demand is inefficient. We are bad at cancelling projects, removing waste, keeping systems running and decommissioning systems properly. The 90% has its roots in this demand inefficiency.

The other starting point for the newsletters was understanding IT value.

I had been working on a large project with hundreds of unclear requirements. I tried to understand the business benefit the project, but I realised I had no idea how IT ever created value. After some thought, I felt that the the best starting point is a strict view of IT value: all IT value is based on the value of automating the storage, processing and communication of information. We can build on this to create higher-order value (such as supporting strategic direction), but any value that can not be traced back to the storage, processing and communication of information is not a benefit of IT.

So these where my two starting points: reduce unnecessary demand for IT; and use the strict value of IT. Next week I will describe some of the recurring themes I found, and how one principle seemed to underpin all of them.

Next: Systemhood

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