Digital transformation has become the new business imperative. CIOs are under enormous pressure to help their organisations embrace those technological disruptors: mobile, cloud, social, big data, IOT, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, which are driving today's business leaders into has-been failures, seemingly overnight.
However, for many CIOs who are expected to lead the charge towards the digital holy grail, the exercise can be a hair-raising challenge that requires them to navigate an unchartered IT minefield, with redundant and obsolete applications that have accumulated over the years threatening to blow the entire exercise out of the water.
According to Denis Bensch, CIO of FlowCentric Technologies, it's essential that before embarking on a digital transformation journey, CIOs ensure they fully understand and then streamline the organisation's application portfolio.
But, this is often easier said than done, despite the fact that there are many reasons to support the notion of an application decluttering as part of any digitisation programme.
In addition to some applications simply not being up to the challenge of the desired digital change and making an already complex process even more complicated, outdated technology carries inherent security risks.
"If your objective is to become a digital business, which implies many more devices connected to the network, outdated software, browsers and operating systems can expose your network to malware that could seriously disrupt the business, or raise issues around compliance and the protection of sensitive customer data," Bensch says.
Another risk of running aged software is incompatibility and being beholden to the provider of legacy software simply because the system can't operate without them. What if the application fails? Is there the support required to get the system up and running quickly, or will you be facing an Orly Airport debacle situation? In November 2015, the busy Paris airport was forced to shut down for several hours when a computer responsible for air traffic control that was running the then 23-year-old Windows 3.1 operating system crashed. The airport's IT department had to scramble to find someone sufficiently familiar with the system to fix it before it could reopen.
Then there's the issue of operating costs. Outdated applications that are no longer supported are often more costly to run than their more modern and effective alternatives, chewing up budget that can be employed far more effectively on solutions that deliver value in accordance with the current business strategy.
Nevertheless, Bensch acknowledges that it can be difficult to let go of the past, even in a supposedly hi-tech, mission-critical IT environment. In fact, if your organisation still uses systems that can be regarded as technological dinosaurs, it is not alone.
For example, a 2016 report by the US government's Accountability Office noted that the country's Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which co-ordinated the operational functions of the United States' nuclear forces, including its intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft, ran on an almost 50-year-old system: an IBM Series/1 computer from the 1970s, which used the first incarnation of large, eight-inch floppy disks.
While that system was designated for upgrading in 2017, there were no plans to upgrade or update the US Treasury Department's 56-year-old IT system, which stored all individual taxpayer account information. This too was an IBM mainframe that utilises a very low-level assembly language code.
However, it's not only outdated technology that can stymie a move to digital transformation; another challenge facing CIOs is "application clutter", an unmanaged accumulation of applications resulting from mergers and acquisitions, innovations, shifting business strategies and shadow IT practices in which departments set up and operate their own mini-IT infrastructures.
Bensch maintains one of the key reasons why enterprises continue to have aging and obsolete applications in operation is that CIOs often struggle to obtain buy-in from fellow executives to fund the resources required to clean up the organisation's application landscape.
"For many non-IT executives, upgrading IT infrastructure that appears to still be doing its job is a waste of time and effort. This is further complicated when users resist sharing information about their application use, fearing they will lose control over how they complete their tasks, or be reprimanded for or prevented from using shadow IT," he explains.
"There's also a common problem of legacy applications being poorly documented, which means that the IT team is uncertain about the purpose and function of each application, what data it contains, and which systems rely on each other to perform. The cost and effort required to migrate data can also cause resistance. It is therefore often deemed less risky, and far easier, to adopt the mantra of 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it'."
There are five factors that CIOs should bear in mind when embarking on an application rationalisation aspect of a digital transformation process:
1) Agility. The application portfolio must support innovation, enable the organisation to rapidly adjust its processes to address new opportunities or risks, and cater for changing legislation and internal processes.
2) Integration. As a core component of digital transformation is seamless communications between a host of disparate devices and services; applications that can't "talk" to each other will limit the digital transformation initiative.
3) Security and analysis. Data that is scattered across multiple incompatible systems is impossible to mine efficiently for trend and risk analysis, and can't be securely backed up, searched, audited or centrally archived.
4) Speed. Slow applications equates to poor productivity and poor customer experience.
5) Downtime. Applications that are difficult to maintain and crash frequently result not only in lost revenue and productivity, but in employee frustration and customer dissatisfaction.
Bensch points out that BPM can help to streamline application management within a digital transformation initiative by extending the lifetime of applications that are going to be phased out; and then integrating with the new applications.
"In effect, BPM can create a consistency in the organisation, not only while the business transforms from redundant legacy applications to more modern ones, but well into the digital future," he concludes.