20 Dec Simple versus simple-minded
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OK, OK. Maybe that’s going a bit too far, but the idea that technology needs to be simpler has popped up in a number of different arenas, most notably in a series of articles in The Economist. All of these commentaries have the same basic theme. Current information technology is too difficult to use. We’ll never get all we can out of information technology until people don’t need a users’ manual to be productive (as if anybody really reads them anyway – CDW ads not withstanding). Why can’t information technology be more like the old-land line telephone? Well, duh!
Of course information technology should strive to be simpler to use, but it’s not like there’s some cabal of guys in white lab coats with taped together, black-frame glasses cooking up new ways to make the technology more irritating. It may seem like that’s got to be true, but it isn’t. The reason every bloom of IT innovation includes more than a few thorns is that “simple” is extremely difficult to achieve.
My favorite story about simplicity concerns a French king of old. Let’s say Louis the 364th for simplicity’s sake. One day Louie 364 decides he wants a painting of a rooster. A call goes out far and wide for the best painter in the land, and that artist is brought before the king.
He says he can do a painting of a rooster worthy of the king, but it will take him one full year. The king is impatient, but because of the painter’s reputation agrees to wait.
One year later, the king shows up at the artist’s studio and demands his rooster painting. The artist shrugs his shoulders, walks over to his easel and whips out a rooster painting in fifteen minutes. The king is outraged. He admits it is a very good painting of a rooster, perhaps even “ze best,” but he was told it would take a year and obviously it has taken only fifteen minutes. “Not quite true,” replies the artist and leads the king into his back room, which is filled with hundreds and thousands of paintings of roosters.
It would seem that simplicity isn’t simple. Showing up like the king and demanding simplicity without any prior preparation isn’t likely to get the best results, no matter how many XP programmers chant KISS or executives mention that they can drive their car without understanding how to rebuild the automatic transmission.
The reality is that the easier something is to use, the more complex it is to engineer. And engineering isn’t cheap or easy. That automatic transmission is a good example. You don’t have to know a lot to move the gear selector from “P” to “D”. But you’d better not be driving a car that’s more than 50 years old, because the engineering to build reliable mass-produced automatic transmissions didn’t exist for the first 50 years of automobile technology.
Was it worth the investment to have automatic transmissions? Yes. Would any one organization be willing or able bear the entire cost of development and deployment? Probably not.
If you’re going to commit to “simple” in your IT shop, you have to commit to the pre-conditions for “simple,” which are anything but. If simple IT is to be anything more than an unrepeatable lucky guess, you’ll need long experience and deep understanding with the systems and environments you seek to simplify.
Nothing else will help you discern what’s essential and what’s extraneous. Simple is all of one and none of the other. Maybe that’s why so many successful IT shops hire so many people from the business units they seek to serve.
Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC of Madison Wis. Prairie Star specializes in managing the organizational impacts of technology. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at 608/345-3958.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.