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Are Legacy Systems a Genuine Change Barrier?

Simon Ratcliffe

Simon Ratcliffe
Principal Consultant, Advisory

A recent Cloud Industry Forum survey illustrated that 47% of organisations believe that their legacy technologies are preventing the implementation of a digital transformation strategy within their business.  But are legacy systems a genuine barrier to change?

Despite many claims that mainframe technology is ‘yesterday’s tech’, they are present within many organisations.  Not only are they present, they are critical and perform core business functions effectively and efficiently.  On this basis we must include mainframes in our digital transformation journey and see them as an enabler to this strategy rather than a barrier.

The primary reason for viewing this technology as legacy and a barrier is that there is a perception digital transformation must be delivered through a modern cloud platform and, therefore, for the transformation to complete, legacy platforms must be cloud enabled.  But this is to miss the point.  And, more importantly, to ignore the significant value to be derived from legacy environments.

Traditional organisations have developed over time based on their investment in technology and this investment now represents a valuable asset in terms of data and processing power that underpins the business.  It is this value that needs to be leveraged in the next stage of the technology strategy and to be embedded as a core element of the strategy rather than viewed as a roadblock that needs to be overcome.

As humans, our experience and our history inform our present attitude and decision making.  We do not generally seek to replace this experience with an alternate approach simply because there is a new approach.

We adapt, creating a new future that is a fusion of our experience and emerging technology and options.  It is this approach that we should apply to digital transformation.

Organisations in the same markets have emerged over time and each is slightly different with a different unique selling point that differentiates themselves from their competition.  Equally, organisations also execute standard tasks in exactly the same way as their competition as this has been established over time as the most efficient approach.

These utility tasks, whilst important, do not differentiate an organisation.  In fact, differentiation in utility is usually only achieved when they fail and, therefore, the differentiation is unwelcome!

Successful digital transformation relies upon magnifying and extending the unique aspects of the business and ensuring that the underlying utility elements are executed as efficiently and reliably as possible.  Unfortunately, there is often a perception that digital transformation requires a wholesale change in an organisation and, therefore, the underlying utility elements must also be transformed.

Whilst there may be operational benefits to adapting or changing some of these elements, it is rare that wholesale change will deliver tangible benefit.  As with all programmes of change, some changes will deliver significant and immediate benefit whereas some will deliver negligible value.

The most successful organisations are those that select the maximum benefit and apply their investment accordingly.

Smart organisations are building new digital models for high value areas such as customer engagement or new channels to market and connecting these new models back into their legacy operational processes.  The value derived from these new models is higher because the underlying operational model is understood and stable.

As the higher value is realised, investment can then be made in looking at legacy components where necessary but the legacy has not, in the first instance, stalled the digital transformation strategy.

There are many ‘digital organisations’ who are successfully engaging in new and innovative ways with their customers and suppliers but are executing the underlying processing using reliable, stable technology such as mainframes, building on the value contained within these systems and simply delivering the value through different channels.  They are building on their legacy and not blaming it for not changing.

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