The People Factor

Forcing change in risk-averse organizations.

Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

My first four posts in this series have focused mostly on technological hurdles in modernizing organizations’ applications and systems. If writing three “techie” books has taught me anything, though, it’s that people matter more than the actual technologies being implemented. And that’s the topic of this post: human beings.

Note that, in this post, “legacy systems” mean systems that no longer meet core business needs.

Technology Through the Lens of People

To modernize even some of their internal applications (no small feat), organizations typically have to retire existing ones. Rare is the company of any size that, these days, does things via pen and paper. Depending on the organization, this can be a Sisyphean task.

Along these lines, in Why Does The Sun Never Set On Legacy Applications?, my friend Jim Harris writes:

The simple reason most legacy applications do not go gentle into that good night, but instead rage against the dying of their light, is that some users continue using some of the functionality provided by the legacy application to support daily business activities.

Harris continues:

Legacy applications are typically the antithesis of agility, but they are typically good at doing what they have always done.  Although this doesn’t satisfy all of the constantly evolving business needs of the organization, it is often easier to use the legacy application to support the less dynamic business needs, and try to focus new application development on new requirements.

As usual, Harris’s take is spot-on. While his points concern the struggles associated with “sunsetting” legacy applications, allow me to take a little creative license with his words:

  • Many people are only good at doing what they have always done.
  • It is often easier for people to use legacy applications to support less dynamic business needs.
  • Many people do not want to focus on new application development and on new business requirements.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

More than a decade ago, I worked for a Fortune 50 company in a hybrid IT capacity. While not implementing PeopleSoft, I supported HR for the company’s Latin America division. Working in Corporate HQ, I managed the distribution of stock options, bonuses, and merit increases. (I didn’t decide who got what; I just ensured that amounts were accurate.)

As long as organizations keep Luddites, cynics, and change bottlenecks in key positions, application modernization will remain a pipe dream.

The company’s internal systems were beyond antiquated, something that frustrated me more than many end users. Why? In short, because I knew that vastly superior systems not only existed, but were used by companies with far fewer resources.

Yet, when I not so subtlety suggested that we ought to look at replacing our legacy apps, I was typically told to keep quiet or told that I was mistaken–i.e., that our systems were, in fact, best-of-breed. Of course, those who argued with me had never seen alternatives to the byzantine applications that we were forced to use. By virtue of their titles and better political connections, these people were able to prevent meaningful change within the organization for years–well after I had left for greener pastures.

Simon Says

The bottom line with modernizing applications is that the people matter more than the technology. Systems and applications do not deploy themselves. Absent a visionary leader, a groundswell of support has to force the powers-that-be to retire applications that, while once useful, need to be shown the door.

And the same thing applies to people: Those who don’t get with the program and who were once useful need to be shown the door. As long as organizations keep Luddites, cynics, and change bottlenecks in key positions, application modernization will remain a pipe dream.

Feedback

What say you?

This is post sponsored by the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.


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1 Comment

  1. Paul Calento

    While I agree that people naturally fear change and can impede acceptance of a recently modernized app, one thing is changing that … consumerization of IT. In many cases tablets/smartphones/new form factor devices require modernized apps. The “embedding IT” trend is another factor that may ease the transition. If IT is closer to the business, the fear factor associated with implementation “may” be reduced.

    Paul Calento
    (note: I work on projects sponsored by Enterprise CIO Forum  and HP)

    Reply

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