We shall do nothing until such time as we can do everything.
— Publishing Executive in reference to IT department
Today, the extent to which a publisher’s marketing strategy and technological capabilities are aligned would seem to matter more than ever. It is practically taken for granted that the long-term survival of trade publishers will be determined by how effectively they reach consumers. And as publishers invest more time, money, and press releases in developing direct relationships with these consumers, their reliance on technology increases proportionally. After all, it is only through the digital channel that these direct relationships are possible in anything like a scaled manner. This finds publishers in the business of IT — an area which, in my experience, remains one of the least understood and complex among publishers’ functional areas.
What is the problem?
The above quote perfectly crystallizes the frustration I’ve often observed among marketers whose every move relies on technological tools which often seem to be, simply, delayed. Most tools are in discussion, in the “requirements gathering phase,” or in drawn out development. Those that are implemented often seem half-built, built incorrectly, built for some other purpose, obtuse, curtailed by size limits, prone to crashing, etc., etc. I have not done a formal survey but I would guess that perhaps 1 in 10 marketers working in the publishing industry would claim that he or she has the tools to do the job.
Given the obvious strategic importance of technological tools, why is this the case? Are publishers, as is often claimed, clueless when it comes to technology? Are they unable to recruit the best IT talent? Are they hamstrung by conglomeration and the parent company’s need for IT scale?
Maybe. Sort of. Sometimes. But I don’t think that’s really what’s wrong. I’ve come to believe that something else — something more endemic to IT — is at work. It is not specific to publishers. It is specific to the discipline of effectively implementing systems. It is called Glass’s Law and comes from Robert Glass’s Fact and Fallacies About Software Engineering. I came across Glass’s Law in a white paper by the technologist Roger Sessions (the publishing exec quoted above turned me on to Sessions). Sessions’s definition of the law:
…for every 25% increase in the complexity of the problem space, there is a 100% increase of the solution space. In IT systems, there are two contributors to the complexity of the problem space. The first is the number of business functions in the system. The second is the number of connections that system has to other systems.
In other words, the more complex the marketing department’s requirements get, the more complex IT’s solution gets. In fact, it gets way more complex. And at the same time, any given solution’s interdependence on other software also increases the complexity. So, exponential increase in complexity is inevitable. In any IT project. And complexity is most often associated with delay, failure, breakage, and compromise.
Okay, so marketers are dealing with complex business challenges/opportunities, especially as they attempt to simultaneously attract consumers, have direct relationships with consumers, and measure the effects inherent in having those relationships. And, by the way, try to tie those activities back to enterprise systems which measure more macro goals like overall sales and revenue. And visa versa. That’s complex. And IT is up against Glass’s Law every time they try to develop a solution to the problem they’ve heard.
That’s the dance. It’s bound to be awkward, especially given the power dynamics, mis-aligned incentives, politics, corporate structures, and individual personalities involved. But does it have to lead to one partner stepping on the other’s feet?
What can be done.
By the very nature of the Law and as indicated by the dance analogy, both partners must accept responsibility for limiting complexity. Based on the prevailing power dynamic in the publishing industry, I believe marketers must take the lead by doing the following:
- Simplify first — what are the minimum requirements
- Educate yourself about what solutions might already be available — ask around, ask IT!
- Be intentional about the solution you’re requesting
- Only ask IT to build only those things that only IT can provide — it is here you’ll run into Glass’s Law so keep that in mind and tread cautiously
- Get everything else off the shelf — we live in the age of Software as a Service and an increasing number of common business problems already have generalized, “good enough” solutions
- Accept some contraints in the interest of implementing — get tools in hand that satisfy the most critical 20% of what needs to happen (80% of the value)
- Accept disposability as a fact of life — don’t try to build or buy everlasting systems
It is then incumbent on IT to a) manage the requirements and b) reduce system interdependence to the extent possible.
In short: the enemy of smooth dancing is complexity. Both partners must avoid it at all costs.
I’m curious of your experiences with Glass’s Law. Do you buy it? Have you experienced it? Do you live in it? Have any tips for dealing with it?