By Alejandro Bianchi, Liveware President
Every day we read and exchange ideas about the companies’ imprint of transitioning towards digital, offering new products and services based on a new value proposition supported by digital technology. It is also obvious that a company that is born digital is not the same as a traditional company, the second one runs this marathon with many disadvantages that I will try to clarify in this article.
One thing is clear, all companies compete to lead the digital transformation and press for increasingly innovative solutions in less time. This reality forces the technology teams to take “the short path” in what makes architectural design decisions and also in the way of producing and delivering solutions. This type of work produces a silent and invisible accumulated cost known by the metaphor of Technical Debt.
Technical debt is the cost that an organization or work team must pay as a result of making technical decisions for short-term solutions but that in the long-term will involve rework costs and poor quality. Simply put, the price companies pay for short-term technological fixes.
Technical debt is not necessarily bad if one is aware of the decision that is being made and the cost that will be assumed, but above all that it has the capacity to manage it adequately. There is technical debt of requirements, architecture, code, testing and also of the process. Technical debt is incurred in any development cycle, be it traditional or agile, although in the latter the technical debt can be a serial killer of projects. Let’s leave that for another time.
The traditional organizations that accumulate years of doing business with legacy applications, poorly maintained designs and little documented code live applying modifications that in most cases generate technical debt that translates into serious problems of application deployment, quality and customer satisfaction. In this scenario, when trying to install a digital platform, the company faces serious problems to integrate it into the tangle of core applications, duplicate data and hundreds of interfaces that inefficiently communicate hundreds of systems. The cost of all this technical debt is the slowness with which the transformation process is executed. It is often said that traditional companies do not understand what it means to go digital, much less improve the experience of their clients. Personally, I do not think so, but the context of these companies is an inhibitor that prevents a dynamic according to the demands of the business and the market.
Not only is this the CIO’s concern, but also a problem at all management levels of an organization. In 2018 the SLOAN Institute released a survey, conducted by Accenture, which says that 70% of C-Level Executives recognize that technical debt is a major impediment to accelerate IT innovations. 72% acknowledge that it hinders the possibilities of migrating to new technology and 69% feel that technical debt impedes the alignment between IT and the business needs. It is also interesting to see that 67% of executives welcome the replacement of their legacy systems; but 70% want to keep them as long as possible, (something like “better the devil you know”) and there is a 50% that believes they can take advantage of the best of both worlds. In other words, what leaders really want is to be able to enjoy all the benefits of new technologies, quickly adapt to new situations and at the same time, maintain the operation of their legacy systems.
Fortunately, there is a way for traditional companies to secure the best of both worlds, and create a scalable, flexible and resilient IT architecture. We could call this solution “digital decoupling”.
If what you read up to here has been of interest to you, then what follows will help you carry out some decoupling practices. Now, think about your legacy systems and while you do not want them to interfere with the implementation of new digital technology. You do not want them to stop working because the core of your business is dependent on them. Then what should we do? The first thing you need to know is that it is not an easy task, because your company is not Netflix, Uber, Amazon or any other organizations that were born digital and did not have to deal with this problem. But, not to despair, there are some good practices that can help in this journey:
- The management team should define what is the new value proposition that justifies the Digital Transformation of the business. What new products and services do we want to offer? How do we face the new competition? What are the values we want to promote through digital technology?
- Evaluate and understand your current architecture. If you do not understand where you are, you would never find the best way to reach your destination.
- Model your future architecture according to the new business vision and identify the critical components that you should uncouple and a reference model for the integration of the new components.
- Design a roadmap to implement your new architecture. Think long-term but act short-term. Consider development effort, project management, data migration and suppliers with whom you can create a solid trustworthy business relationship. No Digital Transformation project in a traditional organization will take less than five years. However, you can take an advantage of short cycles where digital solutions are put into production to improve the customer experience while your teams acquire digital skills.
- Decouple master data from legacy systems. This is a critical point, there is no digital transformation if we do not have a “single version of the truth”. In this sense, design “data lakes” with robust government processes and data management in order to build solid analytics capacity.
- Decouple applications from the legacy infrastructure, in other words, migrate to The Cloud. This will allow you to scale at low cost and pay for what you actually consume of processing. In addition, it will facilitate the integration with your digital platform.
- Decouple a team to build a “Digital Factory” composed by business people in order to create a multidisciplinary environment to generate relevant experiences that would leave plenty of learning and contribute to the development of digital components. Adopt agile life cycles with final destination in DevOps. Additionally, a multidisciplinary team will facilitate the cultural change that the organization will have to face. Last but not least, define a mechanism that allows the rest of the IT organization to participate in some activities in the digital factory, thus avoiding frustrations and / or lack of motivation.
None of this is easy to execute and as an old acquaintance says, “you have to get into the mud” for the Transformation to work, but if you understand the concept that we have tried to explain in this paper, the effort will surely be better taken advantage of and it will not fall for the deception of magical solutions. These types of challenges are overcome with smart management, solid engineering and well integrated and motivated work teams.