In 1995 Steve Jobs was running Pixar, the animated film company. In a speech that is still available on YouTube, he addressed SIGGRAPH, the yearly conference of computer graphics experts, where he talked about the movie Toy Story that was about to come out.
More specifically, he talked about managing the scale and complexity of what was essentially a software project.
When you use a computer to create an animated film, you have essentially two options: you can mimic the manual process and have the computer draw essentially individual pictures that you then "glue" together to form a movie. This would save time, but essentially doesn't allow you any new options.
Or, and this is what Pixar did, you create models to model the individual characters. This way, you can experiment with options, you can try a scene, and if it doesn't look good you can change the lighting, change the camera angle, change the positioning of the characters, and so on, and so forth.
Not only does this allow the filmmakers to make creative decisions at the time when those are needed, it allows them to manage scale and complexity, because they separate responsibilities: some people make models, these models have control points, other people control the models through these control points.
Jobs details some numbers in his speech: they have 400 distinct models (“we modelled muscle and bone structure”), spent 40 man years developing those models, and every model has a limited number of control points through which it can be controlled.
This is how we should start thinking about corporate IT systems: Not as operational "digitisations" of the manual process, but as models that capture a company's knowledge of its employees and its clients behaviour.
If you are currently serving the needs of clients through IT systems, you will need to become a real-time enterprise, or become obsolete. A real-time enterprise can provide its clients with the service they need at that moment, by observing the client behaviour.
In order to achieve this, you will need IT systems that model this behaviour, with limited numbers of control points. If you are driving a car at high speed, you have three control points: acceleration, brake and steering. Any more and the average driver will lose control and crash.
The faster you'll want to go the better your models need to be, and the less control points you will want to have.
The bad news? You will need to overhaul your complete IT landscape.
The good news? It is most likely that your company is less complicated than Toy Story, which took 363 people four years to make. And making Toy Story only cost a fraction of what you spend every year on IT…
About the author: Tobias Kuipers, CTO - Software Improvement Group