Note: an edited version of this entry can be found on the Quickbase blog as a call to action to their "Early Stage Digital Transformation: Leaving Your Legacy Systems Behind" webinar. You can still view the webinar by completing the form here.
The “Legacy” of Legacy Applications and the Road Ahead
As any professional knows, the dream of using modern, mobile, fast applications all day, every day is measured against the realities of time, money and resources. Every organization has those line of business applications that run the day to day operations that no one likes to use. But why can’t IT modernize those applications fast enough? What alternatives are out there? Let me give you my perspective.
My entire career in technology, which started in 1993, has been on working with line of business applications – or as analysts call them today, Systems of Engagement. I far preferred working with business professionals and face down writing code. Learning what they did, how they did it, and how I could improve those processes. I allowed my coworkers to deal with the backend systems – today’s Systems of Records. But I immersed myself in learning the ins and outs of my customer’s business. It’s what a good consultant does. In the mid-90s, this meant working with word processors, spreadsheets, light-weight databases, and the immerging world of groupware. My clients used Lotus Ami Pro, Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, and Lotus Notes. Lotus Notes, now IBM Notes, spread like wildfire within an organization. Why? Because anyone who could write a macro in a spreadsheet could build an application in Notes. As someone without a formal programming education or experience, I could build a fairly powerful application. And as Notes and the productivity suites – Lotus SmartSuite and Microsoft Office – evolved and added a scripting language – my development skills evolved with them.
These applications were usually workflow-based form routing. Processes like New Product Development, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), and anything that required collaboration. I had customers with hundreds, if not thousands, of these applications. And for the most part, the IT department did not need to be involved. IT was focused on the large financial (ERP) systems and other bigger tasks. But that lead us to the problem of a stagnant catalog of applications.
As technology gave us better hardware, mobile devices, and a platform for universal development delivery in the web browser, IT began to lock down on the rapid application development that Notes had become. Other tools took its place – Lotus Quickplace/Quickr, Microsoft SharePoint, and more. But these platforms were still controlled by the IT department. As the IT budgets crunched and their focus spread across infrastructure and applications – most organizations developed a backlog. The users had to find a solution.
I remember the first time I heard about Basecamp, what I consider to be one of the first ‘shadow IT’ products. A customer told me about how one of their projects was struggling to work with their customers. They needed to collaborate across files and project schedules. The tools IT provided were not cutting it. Email was too slow and cumbersome and they couldn’t email around the huge files they needed to collaborate on. My colleague shared with me that the complaints stopped and IT went on to the next fire drill. A few months later, he said he had some time and investigated the project. Turns out that the project executive was so frustrated he turned to the web. He searched for a project management tool and found Basecamp. 100% on the web, it gave them the basic tools they needed. They could tailor it to the project. And they could pay for 10 users with a credit card. But of course, like many Shadow IT initiatives, there was no backup, no legal retention, and all of the other things that IT thinks about when they implement a system. Thus began the struggle between the business and IT. Other products such as Salesforce and Quickbase also got their start focusing on being alternatives to the solutions IT offered users inside the firewall.
I find it so surprising how many people I talk to still use a spreadsheet for a core business function. Why? Because they can. There are not constraints about what they can do within that spreadsheet. Need a list? Done. Need a project plan, easy. Need a quick macro to figure out projections? Give a power user a day or less. But all of these users tell me they want more.
The idea of Application Modernization is not new, even if the name has only been embraced by the analyst community in the past few years. The need to upgrade business critical applications has always been there. The problem is finding the time for IT to work on them. One of the discussions I have with my customers most is how we can help them with this problem.
Figure 1 - PSC's Application Modernization methodology
I am lucky to speak at conferences like Empower 2016 on this topic all over North America. In these talks, I focus on the five Application Disruptors that cause users to look outside the provided applications and platforms inside their company. They are:
1. User Experience
5. Modern Workflow
Figure 2 - The Five Application Distruptors
Any of these can be applied to the reason why a person or organization looks for alternatives. For a user, they are looking for a solution to solve a single problem. IT organizations are looking for tools that allow them to respond to business requests faster. They also want platforms that can empower their users to build their own solutions, called Citizen Development, but still provide functionality and control. Single Sign-on, backups, and legal retention give the IT team peace of mind. And the platforms are stepping up.
As platforms such as Quickbase straddle the Shadow IT and Citizen Development spaces and cater to both the user and IT departments. Not only can Quickbase provide the spreadsheet power user the perfect tooling for enhanced collaboration and functionality, they can provide corporate IT with a company-wide application platform to rapid application development and peace of mind.
2016 seems to be the year where organizations of all size are ready to focus on their legacy application portfolios. Why? I think there are many factors converging all at once. The focus on mobile, the move to the cloud, the impact of millennials and their habits, and the drive to getting away from large scale platforms that cannot be easily upgraded. Both Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint are the top two targets in this space.
No matter if you are a business user looking for a better way to get your daily work done, or an IT organization looking to respond to the needs of the business faster, there are a lot of opportunities for modernization of legacy systems today. The only option is to do nothing. If you do nothing, someone else will.