December 12, 2013

Organizations whose responsibilities haven't fundamentally changed over time -- think federal agencies -- depend on systems built years ago, even as far back as the Carter administration. Considered state of the art when they were acquired, these legacy systems have become the IT equivalent of rotary phones: functional, but lacking new features and increasingly difficult to maintain.

Yet these systems run critical processes. In fact, the age of such legacy systems almost guarantees their importance because as a rule, core processes were automated first. We call this the "prisoner of love" dilemma. Organizations are prisoners of their older systems, but they're also reliant on -- or in love with -- their functionality, low cost, and heritage capability.

There are plenty of issues with managing systems of this age. Organizations might have difficulty scaling, or they might struggle to support the complexity of current needs. The old systems might need to be "wrapped" in data management tools to provide modern-day users access to information. Or they might need augmentation for Internet or mobile use. Over time these problems become more significant as such capabilities become expected. The limitations hinder organizations from fulfilling their mission, meeting required workloads, or automating self-servicing.

[How one insurer improved its tech strategy: Barnstable Mutual Does More With Less Using IDP Outsourcing. ]

To further complicate matters, organizations cannot easily replace legacy systems that form the bedrock of operations. The systems are complex and nearly impossible to document due to years of customization tweaks and updates. The actual functionality is embedded in the technology and requires an archaeological review to fully understand.

What took thousands of man-years to build is difficult to replace in a few calendar years. What can you do to break out of this technological "prisoner of love" situation? How can you orchestrate the prison break?

It requires planning. Replacing a system like this requires a fundamental examination of your organization's mission, goals, and IT needs. You'll also need to develop a long-term IT strategy and sufficient resources. In the end, if your system is too big to replace, you'll need to modularize your approach and replace portions over time.

Here are the three options you'll need to consider for your long-term IT strategy:

1. Replace the system. Switching out a system is risky and requires a large-scale commitment of resources. Replacement requires gearing up program and project management, technical resources, communications and change management, sponsorship, and committed funding. But certain situations compel facing the risks. One organization had systems built on hardware from a manufacturer that went out of business long ago. It maintained the systems by purchasing old computers for spare parts, supported by a dwindling staff familiar with the environment. There is little choice in a situation like this: when the system can barely be maintained it's time to cut the cord.

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