This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked by clients. Before I wrote this article, I did a quick online search and apparently, it’s easy, you just need to select a technology modern platform, low-code no-code, generative AI, retrain your teams and get on with it...
So why haven’t you already done it?
Of course, we all know modernising your IT estate is far from easy, otherwise you would have done it and consultancies like Airwalk Reply wouldn’t exist.
I’ve assembled some thoughts on this topic from my varied experiences over the years, and the frequent questions I get asked.
“Why is modernisation so hard, why is my IT department taking so long and why is this costing so much?”
The million-dollar questions, well here are some of the challenges:
- A lot of these older systems are really very complex, developed over many years, with layers of interdependencies that make changes risky and difficult to implement. Even understanding how these systems work can be a huge challenge, due to inadequate documentation or loss of knowledge over time.
- New technologies may not be compatible with existing systems, requiring additional time and resources to integrate them effectively. Data management i.e. migrating data, especially real-time data, from old systems to new ones can be complex and risky, with the potential for data loss or corruption.
- Compliance with industry standards and regulations can complicate IT modernisation efforts. For example, in finance, stringent regulations can make it difficult to make changes without undergoing extensive testing and validation processes (no one wants a major and very public IT incident)
- Resistance to change – Employees accustomed to using legacy systems may be resistant to new technologies. Change can also cause disruptions in workflow, leading to short-term productivity loss.
- Skills - Modern technologies may require skills that the existing IT team doesn't possess. Training staff or hiring new talent requires additional time and investment – this is a huge issue at present.
- Big IT programmes are notoriously difficult to manage, and a significant percentage fail to meet objectives. You don’t need to look too far now to see the very public fallout of some of these initiatives. The risk of failure, with associated costs and disruptions, can make organisations hesitant to undertake a significant modernisation effort particularly where core systems are involved.
- Cost – the operational costs associated with long parallel running programmes are never really costed properly as part of the transformation programme and modern ways of working are rarely compatible with legacy operating models.
“So why modernise then? It’s going to cost so much, and I can’t justify or demonstrate the benefits to my board”
Technology evolves so fast. If you’re as old as me, you’ll have started working with a green screen, a dumb terminal and will remember dial-up modems. Now I’m not suggesting you’re still running with an aged environment, but the fact is that there will not be a company out there that doesn’t have a ‘legacy’ estate (some outdated hardware, obsolete software, or home-developed legacy applications that have reached the end of their useful extensibility).
The legacy makes things really difficult for your business priorities. It’s slow, makes change complex, stifles innovation and introduces operational risks. Remember that the longer you procrastinate about the investment in modernisation, the higher the risks and ultimately the higher the costs.
So when the sales guy from a technology company convinces your business that they have a compelling proposition that will enable competitive advantage, you just groan at what has now just been made your problem - having to explain why it’s going to take so long and cost so much more than they expected, to integrate the new technologies or data analytics tools they just bought, and have to explain to the board why you’re ultimately hampering competitiveness.
In today's competitive landscape, modernising your IT environment isn't just an option; it's a necessity, but how on earth can you do this?
“Every consultancy reckons they can help me – how would you do it?”
Establish a baseline understanding of what you’ve got.
The first challenge is knowing what you’re dealing with, which means you need to assess your current IT estate. Identify which parts are truly obsolete and which can be repurposed. You really need a good inventory of your existing hardware and software, how systems interact and what needs urgent attention, so you have a clearer picture of what you have and what you need.
Assess hardware, software, data storage, network systems, and the process includes assessing the skills of your team. Make sure to also evaluate security vulnerabilities and compliance requirements.
Prioritise and Plan
Based on your assessment, prioritise systems and applications that require immediate attention. These could be the ones with outdated security measures, or that are crucial to core business functions. Develop a phased plan that outlines how each component will be modernised, replaced, or retired.
Define Clear Objectives
Make sure you identify what you want to achieve with modernisation and get buy-in from your stakeholders from the start. Whether it's improving operational efficiency, customer engagement and ultimately customer satisfaction, or data-driven decision-making, having clear objectives will guide your strategy.
For most organisations, this is going to be a multi-year multi-million-pound investment. Make sure you have a business case to modernise, and also ensure there is a clear understanding of the ongoing charges to ensure you are being cost-effective and don’t end up here again in another ten years.
Choose the Right Technologies
Modernisation doesn't mean jumping onto every technological bandwagon that comes your way. Instead, focus on technologies that align with your business goals. Whether it’s transitioning to the cloud, implementing modern development practices, or integrating machine learning or Artificial Intelligence (AI), your choices should be strategic and measurable.
Proof of Concept
Before rolling out on a larger scale, test the modernisation plan on a smaller scale with a Proof of Concept (PoC). This allows you to identify any issues and make necessary adjustments before fully committing.
Re-platforming versus Re-factoring
There are multiple ways to modernise your legacy systems and applications. ‘Re-platforming’ involves moving an application to a new operating system or database. ‘Re-factoring’ means rewriting the code in a more modern language. Each has its pros and cons, and the choice should be made based on your specific needs and capacities.
Staff Training and Change Management
Introducing new technologies and processes means you need new skills and most organisations do now recognise this, investing in internal skills and bringing services back in-house, but you really do need to invest in training programs to equip your staff with the knowledge they need to effectively use and manage modern systems.
If you need to use a consultancy to help with your digital transformation, we would always advocate business models where we completely involve staff in the modernisation process from the beginning. Keep them informed of changes, how they’ll be affected, and the expected outcomes. Training programs should be rolled out so that employees are comfortable with new systems and processes.
Implement Strong Governance and Project Management
A robust governance structure ensures that the project stays aligned with organisational goals and compliance requirements. Similarly, strong project management can help keep the modernisation efforts on track, within scope and budget.
Modernisation is not a one-time affair; it's an ongoing process. It’s amazing how many conversations I’ve had where there’s a belief that modernisation has happened, “we moved to cloud”. Technical debt doesn’t go away.
Continuous monitoring and improvements will help you adapt to future technological advancements, ensuring your IT estate remains agile and efficient.
The road to IT modernisation can be long and fraught with challenges, but the rewards are worth it. Increased efficiency, reduced costs, and enhanced competitiveness are just some of the benefits you’ll see.
By carefully assessing your business needs, realistically budgeting, executing your plan and continuously updating your systems, you can transform your legacy IT estate into a modern infrastructure that supports an exceptional employee and customer experience, drives business growth, and delivers optimum business outcomes. Remember whatever you do - today’s technology is tomorrow’s legacy so take time to make sure you have the right long-term strategy for your organisation.