The democratisation of complexity

Everywhere you look, very complicated things are being done by people without very much training in how to do them. Have you noticed? Finance people are building super-complicated computer models without any formal training in computer science. They can do that because the tools of production of complicated models have been democratised in the form of Excel.

Elsewhere in the business, work-flows with complicated approvals and integration with other systems are being built by workgroups. Perhaps they don’t call what they’re doing workflow, but they are doing it nonetheless. Here too, the tools of production of complicated business processes have been democratised.

Actually, it is happening everywhere, and not just in technology. The other day, I cam across a document by an intern that featured super complicated monte-carlo analysis as part of a forecast. Not that this intern was especially statistically trained. It was just that the tool was easily accessible, so it was used. Complicated statistics democratised.

Somehow, all this democratisation of complexity has happened under our noses without us really noticing. But there is a significant take-away I get from this. What people want is not a specifically engineered function that solves a specific problem.

They want generalised tools they can use to solve problems for themselves.

They’re bored of doing requirements and testing, and the cost load-up that comes from formal projects. They can solve an increasing percentage of the problems they have themselves. And the pace of things has moved along so much that now, there are sometimes few choices but to go it alone to meet market demands.

I think that we’re getting close to the time when what we build to run our financial institutions will not be monolithic feature sets, but platforms that our people combine together to do new and interesting things. We will have little understanding in advance of what those things might be.

If anyone doubts that end-users are capable of this, one has to look only at the rise of FaceBook in this area. When they launched their platform a year ago, there were hardly any applications. But now there are thousands, and all built by users. Same story with, but in a corporate context.

I’d imagine there are two steps in the ultimate journey for institutions who want to take advantage of all this democratisation of complexity.

The first is to realise that in the relatively short term, systems that can be customised by their owners have significant competitive advantages compared to those that can’t. Parameterised core systems are a key example. When you can roll out a new product on the say-so of a product manager without a huge IT fuss, you are going to be in a much better position than otherwise. Parameterised systems are good, of course, but really amount to handing over the levers of a system to its owner. The real key is to let system owners themselves make new levers. Doing so makes it possible to harness the democratisation of complexity and drives an innovation agenda.

But the second step is more radical by far. Let customers make levers too. Let them mash their banking services into new and unexpected things. Do it from within a walled garden so that the key service provided by the bank is safety and trust.

Then, what you have, is an institution that is successful not only because it has the best people, but because it has the most engaged customers. Customers that choose to co-create the bank. The sort of customer you’d definitely want to have working with you, and not against you.

4 Responses to“The democratisation of complexity”

  1. April 25, 2008 at 1:57 pm #

    well, might I suggest that we already have two enterprise tools which do what you suggest.
    1. Lotus Notus
    2. Microsoft Excel

  2. April 28, 2008 at 2:56 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more with your perspective, James.
    The approach you propose is very much central to the project I’m running in BT’s R&D dept.
    We are taking advantage of the design of accessible programming tools such as Scratch to create an infrastructure for customer co-creation across all digital domains.
    Customers can determine their own ‘rules’ by simple drag and drop of jigsaw pieces.
    Banking seems like quite a natural domain for customers to set their own rules about how their finances should be managed.
    It’s interesting that Dr. Dasgupta raises the examples of office tools as this is a classic environment where ‘amateur’ programmers who are skilled in their own specialist domain (e.g. financial analysis) get to cut out the IT middle man.
    However, the scope of systems which can be built by office tools is very limited (typically documents, formulae and charts) and there’s a huge step up to the next level of ‘full-fledged’ programming languages which can control a broader class of system.
    Our project hopes to fill that gap.

  3. April 29, 2008 at 3:13 pm #

    Yes indeed, both.
    Cefn: I have seen that work, and indeed, it is exactly the sort of thing I mean.

  4. Woody Chin
    May 19, 2008 at 7:18 pm #

    I could not agree more.
    Knowledge workers in most corporations have to make soup out of what’s in the cupboard — and that is mainly Microsoft Office suite.
    If one wants to develop anything more complex he has to go through IT, which is increasingly the bottleneck and not the “enabler”.
    Granted, some places offer some slightly more advanced tools such as Sharepoint, but these too are somewhat inflexible and limited when trying to build real applications.
    Recent developments such as Microsoft’s PopFly, and are just some examples of how “democratized” tools are becoming. These companies (though clearly different in their target markets and required technical know-how) demonstrate what is possible if you remove infrastructure concerns such as hosting, scaling and security and allow non-programmers to develop their own solutions.
    The winning banking platforms in the future, as you point out, will be ones that are flexible and offer useful APIs that both internal and external customers can configure into value-added solutions.

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