Legacy Modernization: First, Do No Harm

I began my career in the tech biz in the halcyon days of ERP. Back in the early aughts, when demand was high and there was still a great deal of efficiency to be wrung out of business process, a few widely held beliefs permeated the industry’s collective consciousness. First, that commercial-off-the-shelf solutions were superior to homegrown, custom and bespoke software.  And second, that business process re-engineering (remember that phrase, folks?) paved the pathway to nirvana.

This latter point dominated the thinking of the first decade of this century. From the whiteboard to the boardroom, we developed business cases and ROI analyses that justified tens of millions of dollars in software investment, and hundreds of millions – nay, billions – of dollars in implementation costs.  Our speculations ran the spectrum – from making supply chains more supple, to holding accounts receivable accountable – using new systems to enforce (or simply force) behavioral change that would produce mountains of money from projected cost savings, revenue generation or operational efficiency.

But what if we were wrong?

Countless projects exceeded time, budget and patience (and ended more than a few careers) as the organization attempted to reconcile what they wanted to do with what the software wanted them to do.  Requests for customizations resulted in many a tense meeting between software vendors, systems integrators and their customers.  Business users accused their partners of not understanding their business.  Tech professionals spoke derisively of customers who “paved the cow path” – a derogatory term for rebuilding current processes on a new platform, diluting its effectiveness and increasing its cost.   Post-implementation studies showed a productivity gap – a period of time after system delivery when productivity dropped.  Some organizations decried processes they didn’t understand; others felt it was inferior to what they had before.

Ultimately, of course, ERP worked – to a degree.  The business value derived from automation and transparency, from integration and management by exception cannot be denied.  But what if it had less to do with delivering a better business process than simply delivering better software?  What if the benefits were the results of improvements to process and technology, but not substance?

The answer is, of course, unknowable.  Largely because the absence of functional equivalence between the before and after states prevents such a comparison. Certainly, some organizations really did need to improve their business processes; others truly wanted to and were limited by the state of the art at the time they delivered their first-generation systems.  But let’s also assume what many solution providers forget to acknowledge: that you are the expert in your product, but your customer is the expert in her business.  She knows what works.  She’s been doing it for ten years.   Or twenty.  Or one hundred.

Let’s set aside the dismissiveness that borders on contempt when a customer insists they have to do it this way, and assume they are right.  For your mission critical business, who are you going to believe: the guy who makes a living doing it or the one with a software quota and a trip to Hawaii riding on it?

For years, companies using technology solutions to enable their business strategies faced limited options.  They could keep using the stuff they’d perfected over the years, even though the technology was outdated, the operating model irrelevant and the cost of resources unacceptable.  They could rewrite or rebuild it at immense cost.  Or they could replace it with a commercial solution that was written for the masses – common denominators masquerading as Best Practices – but which might dilute their uniqueness and mitigate their competitive advantage (and which may still cost an arm and a leg.)

But the march of progress advances only in one direction – and today there are other choices.  Tools exist that re-design and re-architect legacy applications, allowing organizations to preserve the systems they love and discard the technology they hate.  More rapidly reproducing not just code, but context – focusing expensive resources on key differentiators like user experience and complex, abstract business logic.  This ability to remove the shackles of the past without compromising the future – delivering cloud-ready, mobile-aware solutions for a new generation of business users and customers lets companies finally deliver functional equivalence; to retain their identity and reinvent the operating model and the labor model – which reinvents the cost model to their advantage.  It’s a remarkable new approach for a remarkable era in computing.

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