CIOs lash out at information overload

Complexity 'is the enemy', according to several senior CIOs, and needs to be reduced to maximise IT departments' efficiency

CIOs believe too much complexity and not enough innovation are holding back IT departments.

Speaking on a panel at the BusinessWeek CIO Discussion Evening — organised by the European Technology Forum, which is owned by ZDNet UK's parent company CNET Networks UK — in London last night, Brian Jones, CIO of Allied Domecq, said: "Complexity is the enemy of the CIO. The more you can simplify the better."

General information overload is behind the complexity, Jones said: "There's still far too much information around. You ask yourself, 'what does it all mean?'." He added difficulties in learning how IT can be used to make sure each individual employee gets access to only the data they need also adds to the burden.

"If we can find a way that channels behaviour to offer the right information to the right people at the right time in the right way... I think we can improve people's lives much more," Jones said.

Chris Coupland, director of IT and e-business at BAE Systems, added this ability is key in collaborative tasks such as development where you must ensure "there's a single source of info and make sure everyone is reading that one single source".

The panel of IT directors debated the merits of functional richness versus informational richness in systems — with the former seen as often creating too much complexity.

However, Humza Malik, director of shared services at National Grid Transco, argued the quest for simplicity must not limit a worker's capabilities. "Do we want to stop people doing something functionally rich? No. You need to provide the capabilities needed but give variation in it," he said

Jones pointed to the use of SMS by teenagers as an effective use of technology because "it's the information they need, at the time they need it". When the devices we use end up making communications more complex, he explained, we need to change our behaviour.

"With BlackBerrys and similar devices, a lot of people say they can't respond properly to the email they just got. I say: 'Good, pick up the phone.' The lesson for us is we can constrain behaviour. The message to the industry at large is don't necessarily assume that functional richness is always better just as we should not assume that information richness is better."

Coupland argued simplifying design can be a key to simplifying usage. "Design has now become a very important feature for users. Take the iPod. Simplicity of use and elegance of the design is driving behaviour."

The rewards for simplifying processes can be pecuniary — allowing one to save cash and reallocate funds because of simplifying processes, said Jones.

But the quality of spending is still not what CIOs would like to see.

Ian Watmore, head of the e-government unit at the Cabinet Office, said: "We spend too much on legacy and not enough on the transformational side of business. We need to change spending on legacy which we know is not efficient."

Coupland echoed this sentiment, saying his company "had a fall in recent years from big transformational work" while they spent more time and money on "housekeeping".

One tactic he's exploring to minimise this inefficiency is to lengthen refresh cycles. "We're looking to exploit big platform cycles, make them longer and do more with existing platforms," he said

Andrew Morlet, partner at Accenture, said these trends are in line with what Accenture hears from its customers, with companies "trying to manage spend on 'business as usual'" and wanting to spend more on innovation.

Outsourcing has been seen as a way to reduce both complexity and spend for IT departments, though Andrew pointed out: "The extent to which outsourcing is leveraged, despite the amount of coverage in the press, is pretty small compared to what can be done."

Panellists agreed that aligning business goals between a company and its outsourcing partner is the cornerstone of making the relationship work.

While it's fine for customers to have an opinion on which technologies are used by the outsourcer, Coupland said: "The trick is not controlling the [technical] spec-ing process... the trick is to retain alignment of business interest."

When it comes to contracts, Jones said you must have a good one but pointed out its limitations too, saying: "Contracts only come out when there's a problem. It's about cultural convergence."