by Maryfran Johnson

The Challenges of Simplification

Jun 29, 20123 mins
IT Strategy

CIO magazine editor in chief Maryfran Johnson looks at how some companies are tackling the complex task of making their tools and processes simpler

Ah, the complexities of simplicity. The word conjures up Zen-like notions of easy understanding, natural approaches and intuitive use. Like when I recently watched a 2-year-old march over to the TV set and try to change channels by swiping her chubby fingers across the screen (just like Daddy does with his smartphone). Imagine how disappointed she’ll be when she tries to work the ridiculously complex remote control (which even most grown-ups can’t figure out).

In today’s consumer-dominated business world–where CIOs look to deliver “Apple-simple” office tools requiring no training–simplicity has become a code word for speed, flexibility, agility and success.

“This is about killing complexity. As you do, you get faster,” says CIO Charlene Begley of General Electric, one of the IT leaders interviewed for our cover story (“CIOs in Search of IT Simplicity”) “It’s about competitiveness.” Simplifying IT operations and processes is one of Begley’s four strategic imperatives for IT, as she strives to halve the number of GE data centers and lop out 85 percent of its ERP systems by 2016.

In talking with IT executives at GE, FedEx and McDonald’s for this story, Senior Editor Kim S. Nash discovered how very complicated efforts to achieve simplicity can be. CIOs and business leaders must identify what to prune, then finance and staff the project, then make more plans “to stop complexity from snaking its way back in,” she writes. “It’s an ongoing battle, but one that could be worth millions to win.”

Yes, millions. When researchers at The Hackett Group compared high-performing companies to average ones, they noticed that the typical firms were running twice as many data centers as the world-class ones, which also run fewer applications and at lower cost.

At FedEx, complexity reduction is “the largest theme we’re working on,” says Kevin Humphries, senior vice president of IT. He recently opened a new data center that will serve as the $39 billion company’s main IT facility, even though it’s one-third the size of the one it replaces. “You would be shocked to see the walls and walls and walls of excruciating detail to make something very complex end up simplified,” Humphries told us.

As desirable as IT simplification sounds, such efforts often fail–and ironically, it’s because they lack detailed (that is, sufficiently complex) plans. How are you dealing with the complexity of simplicity at your company these days? Write in and let us know.

Maryfran Johnson is the editor in chief of CIO Magazine & Events. Email her at