SAP CTO: Complexity breeds shadow IT

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CIO Innovation

After years of talk about business-IT alignment, users are still circumventing IT departments to find technology solutions on their own. Why? For one simple, or not-so-simple, reason, says SAP CTO Quentin Clark: in-house systems come with too much complexity. In an Enterprisers Project interview, Clark explains why IT must embrace simplicity.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): How does complexity play into shadow IT?

Clark: Shadow IT is created because of complexity. End users and developers are reaching out for solutions themselves through Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or web services because the complexity of central IT, and the focus on running systems instead of creating innovation, prevents IT from resolving what users need.

We need to allow users to solve challenges themselves without creating risks going outside IT awareness and protection. We also need to shift the ratio in IT from being dominated by keeping things running to being dominated by building solutions that move the business forward. It is paramount to give the enterprise what it needs to make every business into a technology leader in its field.
TEP: How does simplicity play out at SAP internally?

Clark: Part of my job is to drive SAP's technology vision and lead the company to build and innovate products that positively impact people and organizations. In addition, I have in line responsibility for our platform efforts, as I have spent most of my career in the enterprise platform business.

Over the years I have learned that one important factor to achieve simplicity is to build all solutions for your own company use and optimize them for mobile devices. Users expect from their enterprise software experiences what they get in their consumer lives — real-time, contextual, mobile, and fast. We have to be our own customer — employees know when we haven't done things the right way. As part of that we have to embrace new SaaS products and make it easy for our customers to consume our software. We have to leverage that power and keep innovating. Embracing new technologies is increasingly becoming not just a differentiator, but also a matter of transformation or even survival.

TEP: What are the biggest mistakes you see CIOs and other C-level leaders making around simplicity?

Clark: A lot of leaders accept the complexity of centralized IT and focus on running systems instead of innovation. That's the first mistake that prevents companies from innovating. It also prevents them from providing what users really need.

Another mistake I have seen quite often is that CIOs are not willing to be bold about rewriting legacy systems on modern data platforms. Instead of accepting the way things used to work, companies have to embrace the cloud. To drive innovation we need to find the up-and-comers who are able to approach things differently. They will help the company move forward, think out of the box and create simplicity within the organization and for their customers.

Quentin Clark is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of SAP. He is responsible for driving SAP’s technology vision and leading the company to build and innovate world-class products that positively impact people, organizations and their customers. With more than 20 years of enterprise experience, Quentin has been instrumental in developing and driving product strategy, including definition, planning, and engineering, as well as leading industry disruptive product launches across organizations.

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.