Sunday, September 20, 2009

Innovation and Outsourcing

Good stuff in ComputerWorld: Partnerships can Go Too Far.

"Consider vendor innovation. As companies become large and entrenched, they typically become more risk-averse and less creative, often rejecting ideas that challenge conventional wisdom."

This is really only half the story.

First Things First

Programming is hard -- really hard. Read EWD 316, chapter 2. By extension, most of IT is saddled with really, really complex and difficult problems.

"As a result of its extreme power, both the amount of information playing a role in the computations as well as the number of operations performed in the course of a computation, escape our unaided imagination by several orders of magnitude. Due to the limited size of our skull we are absolutely unable to visualize to any appreciable degree of detail what we are going to set in motion, and programming thereby comes an activity facing us with conceptual problems that have risen far, far above the original level of triviality."

Given that IT is hard, it therefore entails either some risk of failure or considerable cost to avoid failure. It also involves an -- often unknown -- amount of learning.

Before writing software, we really do need to learn the language, tools, architecture and components we're going to use. Not a 1-week introduction, but a real project with real quality reviews. Sometimes two projects are required to ferret out mistakes.

Also, before writing software, we really do need to understand the problem. Sadly, many business problems are workarounds to bad software. Leaving us with many alternative solutions that are all equally bad and don't address the root cause problem.

No-Value Features

Programmers will often pursue no-value features that are part of the language, tools, components or architecture. This drives up cost and risk for no value.

Business Short-Sightedness

The compounding problem is a short-sighted business impetus toward delivering something that mostly works as quickly as possible. Often, business folks buy into the no-value features, and overlook the real problem that we're supposed to be solving.


The Result: Stifling

The result of (a) inherent complexity, (b) no-value features and (c) short-sighted buyers is that IT management finds ways to stifle all IT innovation.

In effect, most companies outsource innovation. They hope that their vendors will provide something new, different and helpful. The IT organization isn't allowed to invest in the learning or take the risks necessary to innovate.

The ComputerWorld article points out that some companies then put Preferred Supplier Plans in place which further stifle innovation by narrowing the field of vendors to only the largest and least innovative.