A closer look at the status quo approach holding back many organizations, and how to recognize if yours is one of them.

My team spends quite a bit of time talking about the benefits of replacing legacy IT and how that solves the digital dilemma, as well as how to go about replacing dated systems with a modern cloud platform—something that probably comes as no surprise. What might come as a surprise: the common denominator among these conversations is people either do not realize they are operating on a legacy system, and certainly do not realize the extent of its impact.

Legacy IT is still quite prevalent in the government space. In the 2015 Internet Trends Report, KPCB’s Mary Meeker found that the degree to which government has changed their behavior as a result of the internet was only 12.5%, compared to other industries like Healthcare or Education which were both at 25%, or Consumer which was at full capacity.1 And with the GAO reporting that Federal agencies spent over 75% of $89 B IT budget on legacy system maintenance last year,2 this “status quo” approach does not appear to be reversing itself on its own.

With this in mind I wanted to share my definition of legacy IT, discuss its impact on departments and agencies, and walk through the symptoms that signal a need for change.

Defining Legacy IT

Legacy IT is a platform that operates around any of the following:

  • On-premise solutions—information stored in data centers

  • Rigid software that forces teams to react to changes as opposed to planning for them—have you ever had to absorb a new kind of data set by finding a way to plug it into an existing template, or get creative with spreadsheets in order to gain any kind of real insight?

  • A to Z billing—paying for a dedicated instance of the application or infrastructure (and all the maintenance costs that come with it) versus paying for monthly access

Looking at IT's Impact

While legacy IT influences organizations of any kind, it has especially critical impacts on the public sector. Unlike the private sector, where good and amenities can ultimately be classified as luxuries, government is responsible for providing services that protect the health and viability of the community it represents. We rely on the services provided by departments and agencies to protect our most basic—and therefore the most critical—social, economic, and public health, meaning government does not have the luxury of failure.

Legacy IT makes these mission-critical services that much more difficult to deliver. Upgrading legacy IT systems to support new processes or services tends to be a time consuming, complex, and therefore costly process, putting more strain on already lean budgets. It also impacts speed; just like issuing typewriters in place of laptops would greatly impact productivity, mainframes, servers, and other outdated technology infrastructure inhibits an organization’s ability to deliver the kind of innovation today’s citizen-customer demands, at a pace that keeps up with the larger marketplace or industry, from the core outwards. As a result, departments and agencies tend to be ruled by process and workflows instead of mission dynamics, developing an organization-centric focus as opposed to a customer-centric focus. The longer this in place, the further behind departments and agencies fall, putting their services at risk of becoming obsolete.

So, how can today’s government leader recognize if their mission is pained by legacy IT? Here are the six ways I’ve seen it come to life.

Symptoms that Signal Legacy IT is Impacting Your Mission

1. Employees are asking for more.

Do you often find yourself or your IT team apologizing as they say “no, we can’t support that” when employees ask for real time access to information, mobile applications, or for smartphones to be enabled on the network? Have you come across any rogue IT projects?

These types of requests or activity are often a sign that teams on the front line of the mission need more modern, productive ways to engage with the data and workflows that support their efforts. Because legacy systems tend to be more clunky and less agile, it can be hard for the organization to upgrade the infrastructure to meet these new needs, creating a time-capsule like effect that hinders IT’s ability to move from “no” to “know”—from “no,
we can’t support that” to “we know how to help."

2. Upgrades are costly and time consuming.

If and when your team does decide to upgrade infrastructure to support new asks, do you plan for an 18 month timeline? Two-year timeline?

If you’re concerned that upgrades mean the team is in it for the long haul, you might be suffering from the weight of a legacy system. When a legacy IT system is upgraded, it often turns into more of an overhaul because yesterday’s technology was built with a certain set of capabilities, designed to satisfy needs at that time. In order to both modernize and customize dated infrastructure, I frequently see customers who add new capabilities, which then require a whole new workflow to be built into the foundation…stretching that timeline.

3. When I say “Frankenstein IT,” you let a knowing chuckle.

Whether the upgrade is in fact a timely project or turns out to be an overhaul, such initiatives are prone to layers of custom coding, point solutions, homegrown fixes, and jerry-rigged ideas. This is again because as an application or infrastructure gets stretched further and further beyond its intended design, it requires more resources to meet new demands.

The result is often a confusing, complicated, messy architecture that puts organizations at greater risk for duplicating spend, impeding collaboration, and missing opportunities to turn new ideas into real action.

4. You celebrate the “donkey apps.”

Do your latest-and-greatest IT projects solve a single, isolated task without supporting the task’s inputs and outputs? Do more comprehensive, multi-faceted solutions, like managing all aspects of a complex cases on one platform, standing up an app exchange, or assigning next steps directly from a dashboard sound like distant goals from the future?

Custom coding, point solutions, homegrown fixes, and jerry-rigged ideas typically solve one problem and one problem only. The resulting rudimentary “donkey apps” focus entirely on the immediate pain, thanks to a limited scope that lacks the capacity to take future needs into account. This forces organizations to repeat the cycle: build more solutions, point by point and layer upon layer, without ever pausing to find the kind of strategic, comprehensive, adaptable, reliable IT approach missions need in order to stay relevant long-term.

5. You can name the specific person(s) that everyone in the department turns to when they need to pull a report.

Legacy IT systems are infamous for locking data away in the back office, making it hard for someone without a background in data science to gather, analyze, or explain reports because:

There are often schema-based templates that can only combine so many types of data fields, requiring someone with the expertise to stitch together report types on a one-off basis. As a result, many of these custom data manipulations can only be done manually, requiring yet another expert to surface the insights that are now buried by pivot tables in a spreadsheet. None of this is conducive to real-time reporting or executive engagement, making it harder for managers to justify asks for more resources, or provide stakeholders with clear transparency.

If you have teams on the front line that frequently reach out to an IT counterpart for data pulls and reports on a deadline-driven basis, chances are your data is locked away in a back-office, legacy system.

6. Teams live and die by traditional desktop productivity tools.

How often are quarterly reports delivered via spreadsheets or slideware, as opposed to live, clickable dashboards? How much of your daily communications are reliant on having the right folks copied on an email?

Many legacy IT systems were designed before social and mobile technology became so ubiquitous. Such systems are unable to support modern employee communication tools like digital forums, self-service knowledge base software, mobile-ready views, and more. 

Next Steps

If any of these symptoms sound familiar, here are some next steps:

  • Explore our cloud platform’s many use cases for Federal, State, Local, and Defense missions, as well as their community of government contractors. Visit our website.

  • See how LA Metro’s move from a legacy system to a modern cloud platform helped them improve employee productivity, increase customer engagement, and more. Download IDC case study

  • Join us at Dreamforce, our annual user conference, November 6 – 9, 2017 in San Francisco, CA for a chance to learn from and network with IT leaders from all industries. See how other organizations are addressing their legacy IT system challenges. Mark your calendars.

(1)  2015 Internet Trends Report, slide 8. Mary Meeker for KCPB.

(2)  Information Technology: Federal Agencies Need to Address Aging Legacy Systems. May 2016. US GAO.