“Simplifying” a Complex World

Scott Francis
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I read a lot of BPM coverage and commentary.  I also read a lot of software industry news and startup news, and Apple-related commentary, because of my personal interests and because of cross-pollination.  Sometimes a theme will emerge that cuts across these interests and it just jumps off the screen. Right now, that theme is simplicity. Neil Ward-Dutton touched on it when he mentioned the new focus IBM has on “consumability” in its acquisitions. But lets take a quick diversion to talk about some articles that make the same point.

Television

First, this hilarious post by Mark Cuban: “The Future of TV is… TV” (Now, why didn’t I think of that?!). In a world run amok about streaming video and TV going away, Mark points out:
You know what is AMAZING about VOD  ? It gives you thousands of choices and its already connected to your TV. It just works. You don’t have to buy another box. You don’t have to figure out how to connect it to your TV. You don’t have to stream from another device over your WIFI netork and get all confused about how to pull video from the internet. It just works.  That’s what you want when you unbox that great big flat screen TV. You want it to work…. like a TV. Easily. Quickly.
That isn’t to say money won’t be made streaming video.  But TV isn’t going away – and people aren’t shelling out for new HDTVs for nothing.  Interestingly, Mark has a followup on this article because of the Google TV news – and his answer for the future of TV is still… TV (however, he sounded like he liked the Google offering as announced).

Twitter

Not long ago, SAI covered Twitter’s announcement of a new product called “Blackbird Pie“, a product for “embeddable tweets”. I guess the idea was that you could quote someone more reliably.  But it is something like a 7 step process – and one of those steps is to go to this twitter url and paste in the URL of a tweet that you want to embed/quote.  Of course, most people use twitter clients, so they’re not looking at a tweet URL to begin with.  What people typically do is just quote someone.  Or if they really want to get clever, take a screenshot of the tweet so that the wording isn’t as likely to be questioned.  Simple.  For a service that prides itself on “simplicity”, it isn’t clear that Twitter still realized how crucial simplicity is to its service when they roll out unnecessarily complicated features like this. Worse yet, according to SAI:
Besides being WAY too complicated, here’s what else is wrong with Blackbird Pie.
  • Twitter justified its existence by saying that it would prevent people from being misquoted. Problem is, it’s very easy to manipulate Blackbird Pie code to misquote its source.
  • If tweets are supposed to be embeddable, THEY SHOULD ALL HAVE AN EMBED BUTTON JUST LIKE YOUTUBE VIDEOS, EGAD.
  • There’s no easy way to customize the code Blackbird Pie pumps out. What if you want the tweet to be 640 pixels wide?
  • We tried using the embeddable tweets. Didn’t work. Didn’t work on TechCrunch either (see below).
  • Blackbird Pie has already crashed.
That criticism stings because it reminds us of other false starts from Twitter.  The article goes on to skewer the @anywhere feature as well, and the fact that it co-opted the “Retweet” but didn’t implement it the same way… and yet decided to use the same name (adding to the confusion).  Not content to be a simple status and notification service with a lightweight footprint, Twitter is overcomplicating things as it tries to extend its control.

Apple

Meanwhile, in Cupertino, Apple puts out a product that simultaneously elicits rave reviews and dismissals.  It is so easy to focus on what it doesn’t do. Amy of the “Cheerful Software Manifesto” has a wonderful way of putting this, I just had to quote it verbatim:
The iPad, though, unlike the Newton, is going to win, and win on an epic scale. Nevertheless, the shortsightedness of punditry is evergreen. Instead of praising the iPad, critics express their disappointment, because they expected more. They expected a genre buster. They expected something they’d never seen before, something beyond their imagination. Something revolutionary. They’re disappointed that the iPad is so… well… unsurprising. Therein, of course, lies the genius. THE IPAD IS BARELY A SURPRISE AT ALL The design, delivery, and timing of the iPad couldn’t be more different than the Newton. The iPad wasn’t a surprise at all. It’s the capstone in a family of devices. There’s a cozy, pre-existing slot in people’s brains that the iPad fills quite nicely.Oh,” they say. “It’s a big iPhone.” It doesn’t matter if they utter that phrase in distaste. That little sand grain of dismissal becomes the core around which will form a pearl of understanding. “Trying to deal with email on the iPhone is tough. The screen’s too small.” “I wish we could both work on this at the same time.” “I’d like to sketch concepts with touch, but I keep running off the borders.” Ding ding ding.
(The emphasis was hers) Her point: rather than change everything, or revolutionize (as the Newton attempted to do), we need to prepare the ground, and build on what went before.  The iPhone has laid the groundwork for the App Store, and the developer community, which in turn prepared us for the advent of the iPad.  Jon Gruber takes this point further with “This is how Apple Rolls“:
Next, consider the iPod. It debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only, FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and 5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in 2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop. Today you can get an iPod nano for $179 that’s a fraction of the original iPod’s size and weight, with double the storage, a color display, video playback, and a built-in video camera. Apple took the iPod from there to here one step at a time. Every year Apple has announced updated iPods in the fall, and every year the media has weighed in with a collective yawn. There’s never been one iteration of the click-wheel iPod platform that has completely blown away the previous one, and even the original model was derided by many critics as unimpressive.
The same thought process applies to Mac OS X, and (so far) to the iPhone… and likely it will apply to the iPad.  Where each year (or so) a significant improvement will be made to the platform, but perhaps never blowing us away as compared to the previous version.  But comparing versions across 2-3 years, we’ll see improvements across the board.  A big part of this is starting as simple as possible. There’s a simplicity to the Apple ecosystem and products that really makes it easier to engage with their products as users.

Business Process Management (BPM)

Mike Gammage talks about “Cracking Complexity” – and how BPM creates strategic value:
Institutional complexity stems from strategic choices about organizational and operating systems. It’s a consequence of the number of nodes and interactions within an organization. It’s about geographies, customer segments, business units, products, regulatory jurisdictions and manufacturing locations. Individual complexity is defined by McKinsey as “how hard it is to get things done”. It’s the complexity that the vast majority of employees face – typically due to poor processes, confusing roles, or unclear accountability.
Apparently most execs focus on institutional complexity, but individual complexity can really impact the bottom line (negatively).  If individuals can get their job done more easily, and more importantly have visibility as to how to get their job done, then you’ve really increased your organization’s efficiency.  As Mike puts it: “There are jaw-dropping hidden costs arising from confusion in roles and accountability across end-to-end processes. And similarly enormous costs of IT failure where IT and the business are not speaking the same language. ”
If BPM is defined correctly, then it’s a C-Level issue. BPM is not about new ways to automate, it’s a far broader canvas. Process excellence goes way beyond just standardising and automating. BPM is about the management, adoption and continual improvement of every process, whether automated or not. And it’s about wrapping in compliance, risks and controls so that it becomes possible to manage the business in 3D. Framed in this way, BPM is the key to reducing individual complexity – “making it easy to get things done” – whatever the level of institutional complexity.
So, if BPM is about simplifying the individual’s experience of the business – managing for the complexity inherent in any large organization, rather than just trying to oversimplify – then what is, exactly, the role or mission of the BPM software vendor? Phil Gilbert commented on one of our posts recently:
The shame in all this is that what gets lost in all this scope creep is the original goal, the original promise: BPM technologies should focus on reducing the technical barriers to the definition, creation and maintenance of business information. Instead, we seem to be paying for the Original Sin of BPM which was to focus on BPEL (or BPML before it) as anything to do with any of this. We defined BPM properly, then the industry and some of its early proponents corrupted the delivery. […] The beauty of BPM, though, is that it’s about HOW existing technical capabilities can be exposed to a broader audience, an audience more directly connected to the business outcomes than ever before.
Phil goes on with a very good example, versioning… something that literally everyone can do.
“HOW do you version artifacts in a way that’s easy for less technical people to understand?”. Versioning is something everyone can do… so the interesting question isn’t “do you allow versioning” but, rather, HOW do you expose this core capability so that it is accessible to a broader audience and can scale technically.
And the how is important because, as Phil points out, it translates into lower costs and better outcomes.  And honestly, it makes it more likely that you can envision those outcomes in the first place if the how is well thought out – and simple. It is why installation should be easy, and why we shouldn’t have to hunt for myriad third party libraries and their appropriate hotfixes and fixpacks.  It is why the “checkbox” method of software evaluation doesn’t really cut it (at the very least, use a 1-10 or 1,3,9 scoring methodology so that you can weight things that really *work* versus things that barely get a nod from analysts – but better yet, really understand the depth of the product). Some argue that BPM is too complex, and therefore shouldn’t be used. For some this is a theoretical argument, but for others they are putting their money where their mouth is and building product that starts with a simple core.  But that is the long road to building out a BPMS.  However, not all vendors are making their BPM offering more complex – as Phil points out above, they’re working hard to make previously complex issues, like versioning, transparent to the user.  It is also why cloud computing will be come increasingly relevant – simplifying (to the user) the task of allocating computing and networking resources to applications.  This is the real magic of software development done right – making previously complicated activities more accessible. Software companies, and in particular BPM vendors, need to continue to invest in the deep thinking and deep investments to create tools that simplify complicated work; and they need to realize that this is an iterative process – we don’t need the whole thing on a platter 5 years from now – a little progress every year would be great.  Similarly, BPM practitioners need to really think through the processes they build for their participants- providing advanced functionality in a highly consumable package is what BPM is all about.