What Henry David Thoreau Teaches Us About IT

by Dave Hannon

March 28, 2013

By Dave Hannon

For those of you who didn't spend your college years reading essays by dead guys, here's a little tidbit about one of the most heralded American writers: While Henry David Thoreau is best known for his work Walden, writting while living in the Walden Woods, the drivers behind that work are really applicable to the IT organization today. You see, even back in the mid-1800s, Henry thought life was getting too complicated and he was hell bent on simplifying life at all turns (hence the hermit gig).

For example, in an 1848 letter, Thoreau wrote: "When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real."

Now take that last sentence and substitute "your company's IT infrastructure" for "problems of life" and re-read it. "Distinguish the necessary and the real." It's admittedly a long way to go to make a point, but I feel good that I'm putting that minor in literature to good use!

The idea of simplifying your IT landscape is winning converts from finance to IT, from consultants to vendors. No matter how big or small your organization you've likely seen new IT solutions or configurations introduced for a niche, specific purpose. And while their value might be justified in that moment, when they are added to a growing pile of other niche IT solutions, the value vs. cost/maintenance equation weighs heavily on the scales. To Henry's point -- if you continue to accumulate without discarding anything the complexity increases quickly. And when you start building customized solutions the comple xity ramps up even more quickly. How often have you heard this: "Well, I'm not sure why that system is configured that way because the person who built it left the company five years ago..." (Too much customization = CIO going to live in the woods).

"But Dave, my IT infrastructure is so complex, I don't know where to begin! What do I do?"

Last week the Boston Consulting Group put out a useful report on this topic listing six levers you can pull for "reining in IT complexity." And while they didn't quote a single transcendentalist, BCG's first point is increase visibility so that cost vs. business value tradeoff can be made clearly. Other recommendations include reducing not only unnecessary applications but also unnecessary configurations. Ahh..Henry would be beaming. 

"But Dave, we run SAP so it has to be complex, right?"

Well yes and no. I don't think anyone will tell you any ERP system is a simple IT solution. The business needs it serves are too great. But at the same time, there are steps to take to simplify your SAP landscape. In fact, one of SAP's major focus areas right now -- SAP HANA -- not only speeds things up, but it simplifies the IT administration by reducing the number of layers in an enterprise technology stack.

Sam Sliman, president of SAP partner Optimal Solutions, puts it this way in a recent blog post: "A truly great SAP-based architecture should banish complexity to the extent possible in order to minimize TCO and lay down a reliable backbone for an organization. This is why every SA P customer should be paying close attention to SAP HANA. In a very real way, HANA has the potential to dramatically simplify enterprise architecture, reinforce stability and generate big savings as a result."

There are many other sound bites from SAP exectuives, customers and partners conveying similar sentiments about SAP HANA and I heard plenty of them at BI 2013 last week. So while it's not THE benefit of SAP HANA, it's definitely something to put in the "pros" column if you're evaluating SAP HANA for your business.

Lastly, I'd just emphasize that simplifying your IT infrastructure requires a true commitment. It's not a short-term, low-hanging-fruit kind of project, but a long-term methodology -- a way of life, so to speak. Sort of like going to live in the woods alone. (And yes, I'm sure some other literature minor here in Boston is going to point out that Henry's cabin was only about 1/2 mile from his mother's house in downtown Concord, but I couldn't resist the metaphor).

Got simplification tips or resources of your own? Post them here. 

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