Question: Growing IT complexity is negatively impacting our business

In last 5 years, our 200+ employee (now) has grown really fast. Our culture is agile, customer-centric and we give a lot of autonomy to every employee.

One of the unintended consequences of this growth and culture has been growing IT complexity (which is actually making us slower!) and really high IT costs (e.g. we employ 12 IT staff vs. 4-5 in similar companies)

We want to change this and align IT to business priorities. One of my key frustrations is that everything is presented as one complex, fragile system with too many stakeholders.

Thanks for your guidance.

4 Expert Insights

I have worked with a lot of IT organizations unscrambling the question of IT "identity" - is it a cost to the business or is it a revenue generator? The only way to address the issue you are discussing is through a process of mediated communication. Stakeholders in IT have an incentive to increase perception of complexity so long as they perceive that they are perceived as a cost. Complexity equates with necessity and thus protects internal interests.

The issue of alignment is often seen as the first priority. I hold that understanding must come first - and clear establishment of identity and role. Then, and only then, can alignment - as an operational issue - be worked out.

This mediated communication is straightforward and can be accomplished in a very short time period.

I assume you have developed and used a strategic plan for your business.  Why not extend that planning process to include strategic technology planning?  It will force your management team to integrate its IT ventures (active and planned) into the business plan, and thus become a more effective and productive organization.

What you are describing is a common situation, and a cycle that repeats itself as businesses grow and change. As you point out, business needs evolve, sometimes quite drastically. So does technology. In a fast-paced, flexible environment like yours, it is not surprising that the right technology choice 5 years ago would now be outdated, complex, unstable and possibly, impossible (or very costly) to adapt.

Despite the high cost and risk associated with replacing core technology solutions, they do need to be updated periodically in order to maintain business relevance and competitiveness -- though arguably, as infrequently as possible. One issue is that technology initiatives are often poorly justified, with management setting artificial expectations for increased sales and job reductions. Poorly defined objectives and unreasonable expectations are some of the reasons why so many technology initiatives fail.

As you embark on this realignment exercise, the first and most critical piece of advice I would give you is to go into it with a very clear understanding of what makes you and your company different: your core capabilities, processes, know-how. Whatever it is that makes your business unique and gives it its competitive edge. It is tempting to select a replacement solution with the 80/20 rule in mind: "if the solution supports 80% of our needs, it will work". I would caution that most, if not every credible technology contender in your industry will in fact be able support 80% of your (and everyone else's) needs. Rather, the question is whether they can adequately support the core 20% that makes you different.

I would also make sure to select partners that fit your culture. If your employees are very autonomous and used to a lot of flexibility, do not implement a system designed around inflexible workflows, for example.

Without more understanding of your specific business and challenges, I can only provide input on generalities. I hope this helps.

Your question begs so many more!

It sounds as if you've got into a situation where the tail is wagging the dog and that's never helpful.  Also I wonder what disciplines you needed to instal as you grew which have been omitted, perhaps to honour the culture of openness and autonomy.

I suspect that some fundamentals need to be examined before the company is irrevocably damaged and this may be painful; best to do it soon.