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Jul 9 2009   10:00AM GMT

Building Information Systems at the Edge of Chaos

BrentSheets Brent Sheets Profile: BrentSheets

This guest post is from Jonathan Sapir, author of Power in the Cloud: Building Information Systems at the Edge of Chaos. Enjoy this article on Cloud Computing – and be sure to download the free chapter from Jonathan’s book. You may leave comments for the author at the end of the article. Thanks!

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By Jonathan Sapir, author of Power in the Cloud: Building Information Systems
Meghan-Kiffer Press, 2009 ( Download a free sample chapter )

We live in a chaotic world of increasing and ceaseless change and uncertainty. And it is only going to get worse.

While it’s true that times like these create unprecedented disruption and dislocation, they also create the potential for new power and new fortunes. The question, therefore, is: How do we prepare our organizations to not only survive, but to also take advantage of the opportunities that rapid change inevitably brings?

The cloud computing revolution

The advent of cloud computing presents an opportunity for organizations to revolutionize the way they build information systems and, in so doing, transform their businesses.

For the very first time, everyone who has access to the Internet also has the ability to harness unlimited computing power — much like they can tap into the electrical grid by plugging in an appliance.

Cloud computing offers much more than just lower operational costs and fewer technical resources. The cloud removes the boundaries imposed by an organization’s IT function. All of a sudden, IT is no longer the sole means of delivery (through the enterprise data center) and no longer the sole means of production (through the company’s programmers). Now anyone can develop and deploy software solutions at will.

For IT, this is a scary thought because IT is all about control. IT is a perfect reflection of how we view our organizations — as well-oiled machines — where ever more knowledge, more efficiency and more hierarchical command and control will produce better results. This paradigm of the organization as a machine is everywhere we look: We need to “jump-start,” “shift gears” and get back “in sync.” We “re-engineer” and want it all to run “like clockwork.”

The way we build our information systems reflects this mechanistic view. As a result, we pretend we can predict what will happen in the course of each day and what the best course of action might be for any circumstance that may occur. So systems are built to follow the instructions given to them and to only work in the specific conditions programmed for by the engineers. Changes in the environment wreak havoc on them because these systems have no capacity to adapt.

Cloud computing gives us a more appropriate approach. And, happily, it comes at a time when we can no longer simply lay out detailed plans and expect a guaranteed outcome.

A new paradigm: Complex adaptive systems theory

Instead of machines, organizations these days are more likely being viewed as living, growing and ever-changing whole beings — what scientists call a complex adaptive system (CAS).

In this world, our role changes from architects of a system we can control and manage to gardeners in a living, ever-shifting ecosystem. In this ecosystem, each individual in the organization becomes an active agent in building solutions for his or her own everyday challenges. Since they are closest to the problem or opportunity, they are better able to respond quickly and effectively.

It is difficult for organizations to give up control in this way, but it’s the only way to survive in a world that is increasingly uncertain and complex. Complex adaptive systems are characterized by a high degree of adaptive capacity, giving them resilience in the face of change — exactly what is needed by organizations today.

If an organization fails to give up control consciously and methodically, it will not only fail to leverage the considerable benefits that offers, but it will also have to contend with the anarchy that ensues as employees “do their own thing” to adequately respond to their evolving environment.

To succeed with this approach, you need to understand how and why CAS works. You then need to put the necessary pieces in place to ensure its success in your organization. In this way, you can transform your business into a player capable of surviving — and thriving.

Self-service in the cloud

As CAS theory tells us, the speed and efficiency demanded of a resilient and responsive organization occurs only when employees find different ways to make continuous small adjustments that increase profits and decrease costs every day, every week, every month. The only way to do this is to give them the tools and support they need to serve themselves.

Self service does not mean turning business people into programmers. What it does mean is giving the right set of tools and support to the person closest to the problem, so that person can build powerful software solutions on his own. The goal is to get these knowledge workers to put together “good enough” software solutions to solve specific problems – quickly – so we can significantly reduce or even eliminate the time and coordination needed from IT. In this way, it becomes possible to address areas that were previously unaffordable or of low priority to the IT department.

The target audience for a self-service approach is an educated professional (e.g., accountant, HR personnel) with modest computer literacy and interest that mostly includes the Web and Microsoft Office. They have basic computer experience, like using a wizard to generate something new; interacting with spreadsheets, documents and forms; and using drag and drop to rearrange items on the screen.

The types of applications being addressed will not replace core business applications. They address a different need — applications that are built for just a handful of users, applications that are used for only a few weeks or months, or applications that address a small piece of functionality. Called situational applications, they are a new software niche, where communities get form-fit, good-enough tools for the very particular needs of the community that uses them.

Situational applications are a potent combination of tools, mindset and methodology. They provide a formidable force that helps your organization meet today’s business challenges quickly and cost-effectively. They reduce — or even eliminate in some cases — the need to use professional software developers (a valuable resource best used for enterprise-wide solutions) and the need to purchase an ill-fitting software package or to kludge a suboptimal, inefficient and incomplete solution using tools like Excel and email.

These solutions on demand will help businesses slash expenses and reduce cycle times by more effectively supporting how people work, address challenges and make business decisions. They will allow the business to be more innovative and competitive by supporting new processes more effectively, increasing overall productivity and facilitating new ways for sharing information.

The advent of cloud computing facilitates solutions on demand. And, cloud computing opens up the possibility for businesses for the first time to build and deploy powerful systems that don’t depend on the resources of the IT department.

Jonathan Sapir JONATHAN SAPIR, Founder & CEO of Silvertree Systems, has over 20 years experience helping clients leverage information technology to build their business. After starting out as a system engineer for IBM, Jonathan built InfoPower Systems, Inc., a successful mid-size consulting firm in Chicago in the 1990’s, then grew a software product development company which was acquired in 2007. Jonathan started SilverTree Systems primarily to help companies transition to the cloud.

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