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22 May 2012

Minimal IT: Back to basics

By Andrew Clifford

The best way to improve cost, risk and responsiveness in IT is to reduce the number of systems, the complexity of systems, and the unnecessary demands on the IT organisation.

I started writing these newsletters in 2005 because I was frustrated by waste in IT.

I am not frustrated by how we provide IT. Technology is faster and cheaper, and we have effective methods for creating, developing and operating IT systems.

I am interested in a different part of the cost equation. Costs can be calculated as a cost of supply per unit of IT multiplied by the amount of IT. My frustration is that we are very bad at managing the amount of IT: the number and complexity of systems and the demands put on the IT organisation. We have addressed efficiency, but we have not addressed the multiplier.

You can see evidence of excessive IT everywhere:

  • Systems bloated with little-used features.
  • Multiple systems doing the same thing.
  • Unused CPU, network and storage.
  • Unnecessarily complicated interfaces between systems.
  • Legacy systems that are difficult to maintain.
  • Expensive replacement systems which do little more than the old ones.
  • Politically-motivated projects that deliver little value.
  • Upgrade projects forced by vendor support policies.

All of these are symptoms of excessive size and complexity or excessive demands on the IT organisation. They cost money and take time but deliver little business value.

To make further gains in cost, risk and responsiveness, we need to systematically reduce the amount of IT we have. We need to deliver the same business value from a smaller, simpler footprint of IT systems and activities, or, as I would call it, we need minimal IT.

How important is this? If we had no more IT than we absolutely needed to support our businesses, and if the IT organisation only took on the minimum of work required to keep IT aligned to business needs, how much simpler and cheaper would IT be? My personal guess, for which I offer no explanation or evidence, is that there is a theoretical minimum of IT which is about one percent of what we typically have. It is very hard to get to the theoretical minimum, but I think it is reasonable to aim at delivering the same business value on about ten percent of the current amount of IT. That's a ninety percent saving on total IT costs.

To make these savings, we need to look in places that we currently ignore, and we need to challenge many widely-held beliefs. We won't get close to minimal IT by repeating well-worn platitudes; we need radical new ways of thinking.

I write these newsletters to force myself to keep thinking about minimal IT. Over the years I have covered six major themes:

  • Understanding how IT creates value.
  • Structuring IT systems effectively.
  • Managing IT proactively.
  • Following effective development practices.
  • Adopting open standards and open source.
  • Exploiting generic applications.

Over the next few weeks I will summarise each of these to build a more complete picture of how we can get closer to minimal IT.

Next: Back to basics: How IT creates value

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