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1 March 2011

What's on your mind?

By Andrew Clifford

What do you do when there are thoughts that keep floating around in your head, and you can not make sense of them or make them go away?

Six years ago, I was faced with exactly that situation. I had recently left a job in the IT department of a large retailer. Although they were by no means the worst offenders, I was tormented by the huge waste I saw in IT. My response was to start writing this newsletter, to help me explore and make sense of those thoughts.

I was not particularly concerned about how efficiently we supply IT, but rather demand-side inefficiencies, or the tendency to want more IT than we need.

This inappropriate demand comes in many forms. Politically-motivated projects, the must-have new enterprise systems that are just too complicated and different for the organisation to accept, are a large source of waste. The career aspirations of both technologists and managers drive unnecessary and inefficient IT solutions. Because we do not rationalise and decommission IT aggressively enough, we have much larger volumes of IT to maintain and operate than we strictly need.

In this newsletter I have explored how our perception of IT is at the root of many inefficiencies. A more down-to-earth perception of IT would help us understand IT more clearly and cut through some of the excessive demand. I have been exploring a strict definition that IT is only a tool for storing, transforming and moving information, and whether we should consider IT as a set of independent systems, rather than a complex of layered technologies and processes.

Exploring these ideas has achieved their primary objective. My torments have gone. I now feel I have got to grips with the problems I saw, and have at least some ideas on solutions. But more importantly, I have come to accept that many solutions to waste fall into the "nice idea, wrong species" category. Because of the people we are, we are bound to misunderstand something as radical as IT and misuse it for all sorts of political and career ends. The economic situation has now changed, and most organisations have reigned in their worst IT excesses. And my experience of working as a consultant has taught me to sell what people want to buy, which is usually justification for more IT activity, rather than naively assume that everyone wants to save money.

Although my original torments have gone, new thoughts float around my head now. I now wonder whether there are technological solutions which would sidestep the current demand-side inefficiencies, and move us to a much more efficient and valuable exploitation of IT.

My current view is that there may well be new types of solution which are orders of magnitude more efficient. Although my thoughts are vague and speculative, I see hints of it in everything-as-a-service (removing infrastructure constraint), in the technologies that support the semantic web (removing data constraint), and even in role-playing computer games (combining individual and computer-based realities). I am not sure there is anything in it, but it is definitely something worth thinking about.

Next: Why are websites so hard?


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