Reading ‘Overcomplicated’, Thinking About Higher Ed Tech

A book that is not about campus IT, but that may motivate us to think differently about campus IT.

August 29, 2016

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Samuel Arbesman

Published in July of 2016.

Earlier this month thousands of Delta passengers were stranded by delayed and canceled flights when a critical system in an Atlanta data center failed.  This Delta outage followed a similar Southwest Airlines incident in July, where a router failure brought down the website and made it impossible for a large number of flights to take-off.

Is higher ed immune from the technology system failures that seem to paralyze the airline industry on a regular basis?

Should postsecondary leaders be holding conversations with campus IT heads about major system redundancy, resiliency, and recovery?

An excellent way to begin a conversation on campus about the fragility and robustness of our critical IT systems is to read and discuss Samuel Arbesman’s fascinating book Overcomplicated. This is a book that will help non-IT people come to terms with the inevitability of technology failures.

The complexity of our our campus IT systems - systems that have been kluged together across generations of conflicting requirements, overlapping policies, and outdated and new technologies - means that they are all but guaranteed to behave in unexpected ways.  Our campus IT systems are interlocked and interlinked, and it is not always clear how a change to one system will impact another.

Overcomplicated is a book that may help us move our IT thinking away from a break/fix mentality, to one of proactively anticipating possible areas of weakness.  The goal should not be to guarantee that no system will ever fail - but rather to have completed the scenario planning to ensure that the people, structures, and communications channels are well in-place to deal with the inevitable crashes.

How many critical applications are running on your campus?

How many programs, applications, and services does your school depend on to keep the place running?

As Arbesman points out, the number of technical systems that large organizations now depend on to function have grown so numerous that no one person can maintain an accurate understanding of the totality of all operations.  The complexity of modern IT system has intensified faster than our organizational and managerial practices have been able to adapt.

The result is that serious system failures have become normal errors.  Failure is a part of the game. 

The question is not will our campus IT systems go down at some point, but how well are we able to put in place resilient and redundant systems to deal with failures?  As well as how successful will the IT unit be at communicating the causes, impact, and repair timeline with all of stakeholders when inevitable failures do occur?

Will the thinking embedded in Overcomplicated push higher ed technology leaders to attempt to de-complicate their systems?

Is a strategy to move critical campus systems to the cloud, such as student information systems (SIS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, the appropriate response to complexification and the normal failures that follow?

Complexity, and normal failures, may be a good lens to view our efforts to shift from running to consuming IT services.  A focus on leveraging IT to solve academic and business needs, rather than on running and maintaining applications (and the hardware that these applications depend), may spur faster campus SaaS (software as a service) adoption.  

Reading a book such as Overcomplicated, one that has lots to say about IT complexity in every industry save higher ed, may be a good way to open up discussions about IT system redundancy and resiliency within higher ed.

What are you reading?



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