CXO

Plan like a startup: How IT can abandon constraints of legacy systems

IT leaders often lament the baggage of legacy systems and organizational detritus. Pat Gray explains how to plan without constraints.

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Image: iStock/svedoliver

Most of us have occasionally cast a jealous eye at modern startup companies. Instead of requiring years to acquire, build, and deploy complex systems, high-quality applications and services are available at commodity pricing with little more than a credit card required to get them up and running. In many traditional organizations, IT has become saddled with the perception of being the "Department of No." A typical response to new requests might be a litany of reasons why something can't be done. Data centers that we spent years building and significant resources maintaining are now liabilities rather than assets.

In many cases, these constraints are legitimate. Organizations that have been in existence for more than a decade likely have dozens of legacy systems, in some cases systems that are older than the people who run and manage them, and have decades of "enhancements" and modifications with little or no documentation. It's easy to quickly jump to the various constraints and challenges as you consider a new request, and inadvertently appear to be against anything that might impact this fragile technical environment.

How to think more like a startup

Enviously regarding the new guys can actually be productive and is a valuable planning exercise in its own right. As part of your strategic planning, take some time to consider how you would design your IT organization if you were unconstrained by your legacy systems, but had to support your current business. Ask yourself, and your team, these questions:

  • Which proprietary platforms would you replace with commodity cloud services?
  • How has your business simplified to the extent that you could abandon or consolidate customer applications?
  • What "problem children" technologies would you happily replace with a modern equivalent?
  • Which vendors would you happily abandon for a more modern or open source stack?

Also, consider these question to examine the impacts this alternate vision would have on your IT organization:

  • What skill sets would be different?
  • How would you hire and retain people in this alternate organization?
  • How would you be structured differently, and how would you relate with and be organized within the broader structure of the company?
  • Would IT even continue to exist as a standalone organization or shared service, or would a leadership committee of some sort provide loose oversight of the various business units that selected and maintained their own applications?

As you proceed with this exercise, ask yourself and your team why they're making certain decisions:

  • Are they made in order to provide more flexibility?
  • Will they reduce the time staff are spending doing low-value maintenance work?
  • Has your business changed to the point that some applications are largely irrelevant, and keeping them operating is due more to "it's always been this way" than a valid business case?

Identify recurring themes, and use them for planning

While you probably will not be able to abandon your entire technology platform and organization tomorrow and start with a blank slate, you can, however, use the themes you have identified to inform your strategic planning. Is simplification a major theme? Then perhaps an initiative to consolidate and streamline key platforms should be in your strategic plan for the next six months. In particular, look for the themes that focus on areas you can change in the immediate and near terms. Organizational changes could be affected without upsetting legacy technical platforms, just as new management methodologies can be implemented and immediately improve operations without a single line of code or piece of hardware.

Major platform changes should inform your longer range planning. If reducing in-house applications is a major theme of how you'd build your organizations with a blank slate, start building a multi-year plan to migrate to cloud or third-party systems. The mental exercise of abandoning your legacy constraints can not only be intellectually refreshing, but can lead to valuable themes that inform your strategic planning in the short, medium, and long terms.

Also see:

USCIS CIO shares two tips on encouraging innovation and experimentation
Can large companies adopt the agility of startups?
How being fast and flexible can lead to a competitive advantage in business

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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