The real legacy tech trap

Legacy tech is often viewed in isolation as a tech issue, but it’s advisable to look beyond hardware and software to include business processes.
Ethan Searle
By Ethan Searle, Business development director, LanDynamix.
Johannesburg, 23 Oct 2023
Ethan Searle, business development director, LanDynamix.
Ethan Searle, business development director, LanDynamix.

Legacy technology refers to outdated hardware, software, or systems still in service, which may have delivered value in the past but can present significant pitfalls when kept past sell-by dates.

Said pitfalls include security vulnerabilities, with older systems not receiving updates and patches, leaving them susceptible to cyber attacks and data breaches.

Moreover, as new technologies and software emerge, legacy systems might not be compatible with newer applications, tools, or hardware. This, in turn, can hinder collaboration and integration with modern systems. Of course, vendors and developers may no longer provide support for older tech, making it difficult to troubleshoot problems or receive assistance when needed.

The all-important matter of increased maintenance costs also raises its ugly head, as keeping legacy systems operational may require specialised knowledge and resources that are becoming increasingly scarce. As costs rise, business efficiencies may reduce significantly, as outdated technology often leads to slow processes, increased downtime and reduced overall productivity.

There is no doubt that technology must be positioned properly and in a manner that makes it predictable.

Everything I have noted up to this point forms just a summary of the possible negative outcomes of hanging in there with legacy technology, but none of this hit the nail on the head as to what the real problem is: the thinking around it. It's not a tech issue − it's a business issue.

The real trap of legacy tech is not the impact of old tech on the business but rather how the company sees it. Legacy tech is, all too often, viewed in isolation as a tech issue and thus solvable by replacement tech − but if the thinking is along those lines, the organisation is very much mistaken.

It should look at the business; understanding where it is in the market right now and above all where it wants to be going forward. It is only with such a holistic approach that it will be able to look beyond hardware and software to include business processes as well.

There is no question that technology can provide the tools to deliver competitive-edge and more, but technology-modernisation projects must always be undertaken in conjunction with the business goals, otherwise it risks creating another legacy trap further down the line.

The company must take a strategic approach to technology upgrades in order to avoid finding itself boxed in by that very silver bullet it invested in for growth − technology tunnel vision can end up leaving it overly committed to one particular path.

Gartner Peer Community posts deliver compelling insights from the coal front − business executives commenting on legacy, costs, upgrades and their experiences in planning and implementing change.

They note the most important part of the business case is showing how transitioning to up-to-date technology will help the organisation maximise efficiencies and save money in the long run.

They go on to state that if a company has a clear cost advantage delivering value in business terms, that's great but unfortunately most older tech does not. In assessing the business case for the move to new technology, it's necessary to identify possible risks, the potential value from such an investment, and of course, the cost implications.

Interestingly, these peer reviews endorse the benefits of engaging a cross-functional team that understands and is invested in the transition process.

This brings me to the three Ps of business: people, process and product. These are often said to be the foundation of everything the business does, starting with staff. Employees must buy-in to the plans for change that will bring greater success to the organisation − 90% of the battle involves getting their support. The Blue Ocean Strategy endorses this approach.

But change can only be achieved by implementing processes that will differentiate the business in a crowded marketplace. Now, let's define what that means.

The process represents the IP of the business; this is followed by training and building the necessary technical knowledge internally. Hiring the right people is crucial. But what is the IP of a business? I would define it as the ability to leverage off the exceptional depth of technical knowledge and skill that it took to establish the company in the first place.

It must scale that wisdom throughout the company with a view to motivating staff to deliver on the market value proposition to customers, but the trick is to get them to do this with skill and enthusiasm.

This is no different with any company. If it has the right people, it needs to coach them to deliver products and services the way the organisation wants them delivered. The technology part of the issue comes into play when reaching the point where legacy systems are blocking the growth of the business. In the digital age, companies can't deliver efficiently and grow, if the tech is not there.

Next, the firm needs to decide how it will provision new tech and then be clear on how it will secure it.

There is no doubt that technology must be positioned properly and in a manner that makes it predictable. To achieve this, automation is essential for certain processes − particularly those of a mundane nature.

Today, automation and artificial intelligence are intertwined terms that often lead to a degree of resistance from people within the business. This is due to concerns around job security, etc, but automation of the mundane must be viewed as an opportunity to upskill staff to more interesting work and produce a consistent quality outcome from the automated tasks.

All of this must be tied into what the customer wants delivered to them and the company’s understanding and delivery of that value proposition.

Gartner advises that if you need to modernise legacy applications, the best approach depends on the problem that is trying to be solved − which makes a lot of sense.

Digital transformation has made it imperative for application leaders to find effective ways to modernise legacy systems, with the biggest challenge being identified as knowing the risk-to-reward ratio before acting.

Ultimately, modernising legacy applications means choosing between rearchitecting, rebuilding, or ripping and replacing. Rearchitecting has medium costs and risks, whereas rebuilding or replacing provides best results with higher costs and risks.

The global research guru stresses, and I would endorse this, that the important thing is to weigh up all the options to help identify the extent to which each will have the desired effect − with the minimum effort and maximum positive impact.

In my next article, I will discuss how to ensure new investment delivers value to customers and how to secure it.