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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Weeding Out Misguided Complexity

One of the advantages of good software is that it enables an organization to manage a great deal of organizational complexity. But there is a sort of misguided complexity I'm concerned about, complexity whose cost outweighs its benefits.

We've been at this business for over 15 years, and in that time computers have become ever more central to organizational life. So it seems only natural that the IT systems we see -- in particular the mission- related database systems of the non-profits and associations we work with -- get more and more complex with each passing year.

Maybe it is natural, but it's also natural for your backyard to gradually become overrun with weeds. IT weeds grow out of your efforts to solve all the new little problems that your community springs on your each working day. You add new rules, new procedures and corresponding new software support, to deal with all these special cases and infrequent events. It's a complexity that would never have occurred without automation - it would be just way too convoluted manage. But even in the age of IT, this complexity does have a price.

The price is that it becomes harder and harder for anyone to wrap their minds around the system. Training gets harder. Data entry forms are more confusing. Messages that report a violation of this or that rule make it harder and harder to fill out a page and move on. Errors increase. And most distressing to us, users start reporting as bugs the new features we were paid to add to the system last month.

Although the financial and human cost of all this appears as an IT issue, the misguided complexity is actually organizational.

  • Misguided complexity may be a proliferation of member types, donor levels, and so on. We have at least two organizations working with us who by now have over fifty different member types with distinctive pricing and benefits packages.
  • Another client has had a steady explosion in the pricing options for the classes they hold. They have over 100 now, and as they add new options to this list, the names of these pricing options get longer as well so they can differentiate between them. So the field for the pricing option is name is now a full 100 characters wide! How can this not set off a warning flag in someone's mind?
  • Misguided complexity also occurs when new business rules or new data fields are added that will almost never be used. Looking at any of our clients' systems, we can find numerous fields added at users' request that are almost universally empty.
Each decision adding complexity has very little cost. Adding one new user-defined member type is a tiny thing really. But they all add up: expecting new staff to grapple with sixty-three membertypes is extreme and is costing the organization time and money.

As the compexity grows incrementally, there comes a time to weed the garden - to look for a novel solution that eliminates the complexity and replaces it all with a new simplicity. In the rare occasion, this may be purely an IT function, but most often it is organizational as well. Weeding complexity out of your organizational garden can be represent a significant savings.

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