I have just been exposed to the work of Joseph Tainter (hat tip Gregor Macdonald). As our society grows more complex, Tainter’s theory regarding the collapse of societies under the weight of complexity seems compelling. As a technology industry analyst, I am faced with complexity every day, and my prime task is to slice through the complexity to make it more understandable for my clients.
There Is No Easy Button
Before I joined Gartner, I worked as a developer, architect, business analyst, team leader, and sometimes jack-of-all trades IT guy (for example I set up a PCBoard BBS in 1999 to provide a way for insurance agents without internet access to upload quotes via modem; I was the only guy who still knew how to configure and run a BBS), etc. at various points in my career. The mantra “there is no silver bullet” was commonly repeated – sometimes in exasperation – in all of these roles.
Good, Fast, Cheap – Pick Two
I don’t believe that we’re suddenly going to find an easy button – in the abstract. Someone, somewhere, has to do heavy lifting in any software development endeavor to build a high-quality, high-availability, highly-reusable Web architecture. Developing these things is a complex process, with a lot of moving parts. However, we know from experience that tools make problems easier to solve. For example, imaging trying to build a modern Web application using just CGI, C++, and sweat, and compare that to what you get out of the box with .NET, ColdFusion, Rails, etc. I realize each of these tools has various advantages and disadvantages, but they are marginal differences compared to where we were ten years ago.
Still, software development costs and IT costs in general keep growing faster than the rate of inflation. For example, Gartner predicts that in 2013, organizations will drop almost $4b on IT, compared to just over $3b in 2007. Yet, some folks think that IT doesn’t matter. So why do we spend more and more on it?
IT keeps getting more complicated, requiring more investment just to keep up with competitors. Companies able to manage the complexity with strategies such as SOA can leverage their underlying investments to generate additional value, sometimes even creating brand new product offerings, repurposing existing systems as disruptive innovation.
In a perfectly architected software world, IT wouldn’t matter, because all competitors would have similar capabilities and success would come down to other parts of the corporate strategy. “Best practices” – which by definition proscribe noncompetitive processes, which are the same as everybody else’s – would dominate. How many organizations are successful in implementing best practices? How many even agree on what these are? I submit that IT does matter, and that companies who learn how to screw down the cost drivers while simultaneously enhancing value drivers to satisfy customer needs have a competitive advantage in their industries.
Pay It Forward
So, how does this all add up to the Cloud saving the world? My (admittedly clumsy) interpretation of Tainter is that as the world grows more complex, the only chance we have to head off the disintegration of modern society under the weight of complexity comes through technological leaps in the form of disruptive innovation. The hype around the Cloud provides some justification for the idea that it is disruptive. Yefim Natis and I (mostly Yefim) developed a research note in June that describes what we see as the Killer App – Application Platform-as-a-Service (APaaS) – on the horizon that will result in accelerated disruption.
APaaS simplifies the development of Web applications and the management of infrastructure, abstracting the complexity behind the walls of a provider, such as Google (App Engine), Salesforce (Force.com), Microsoft (upcoming Windows Azure .NET Services). The adoption of APaaS by a wide range of enterprises will make parts of IT matter less to most enterprises (although it will be much more important for the APaaS providers themselves), and it will enable enterprises to focus on what truly differentiates them – business processes. APaaS isn’t an easy button, but a leap in Web development tools that stashes “best practices” behind the facade of a service provider, and it will allow enterprises to save enormous amounts of money in the long run, money that will be paid forward to shareholders and then reinvested in other areas of the economy.
Could this new level of simplicity in complexity be the disruptive innovation that saves the world – or at least gives us a bit more time?