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Five key considerations when delivering complex system upgrades

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/niroworld)

In a world of rapid digital transformation, businesses are investing in new digital tools at an unprecedented rate. With reports that nearly two thirds of UK companies plan to significantly increase IT spending next year in response to Brexit concerns, business leaders need to make smart choices about where and when they spend their technology budgets. While one upgrade can be essential to business success, another could simply be an unwise investment.

With an increasing range of digital systems and solutions available, organisations must be strategic about ensuring they access the benefits of emerging technologies while working within the constraints of finite budgets. Planning is key to delivering a successful transformation project to ensure it aligns to business goals and improves the service for the end-user. Here are five key factors which businesses should consider when managing the upgrade of the complex systems that are increasingly governing how they operate today.

1. Weigh up the benefits

The decision to upgrade a system or solution should be motivated by a clearly defined set of benefits and return on investment. These should be clearly communicated to everyone from the board and team members to relevant external delivery teams or partners impacted and must be tracked and managed throughout. Employee engagement is critical when it comes to seeing a digital transformation project through. Therefore, it’s important that these benefits are communicated without hyperbole so that everyone, no matter their level or area of expertise, can understand why this is being carried out. For example, the benefit could be as simple as ‘the upgrade will help to drive down cost per unit’.

It’s also essential to agree on a method for measuring the success of the upgrade in advance. A lack of effective communication regarding the target benefits of the investment can cause confusion which might undermine the successful delivery of the benefits themselves. Consider setting out a charter that describes how, and importantly, when the stated benefits will be delivered so it can be monitored throughout the upgrade process and beyond.

2. Develop dedicated resources

Businesses should put a dedicated core team in place to see any upgrade project through while driving and safeguarding its aims. This group will oversee delivery and, crucially, challenge decision making at every level to ensure everyone is working towards the desired outcomes.

While it’s common for organisations to divert their ‘best people’ to an upgrade project, problems can develop when employers fail to give them the freedom and time needed to see the project through. An upgrade programme should be managed effectively with adequate processes and sensible governance. Seeing the upgrade as a short term, simple delivery that the ‘best people’ will ‘just deliver’ is underestimating the potential complexity of the upgrade and will erode the benefits through the increasing costs of getting it over the line. Organisations will succeed if they view upgrades as a long-term gain and allow key people to oversee ongoing delivery, not just the initial launch.

3. Break it up  

The delivery of large upgrade programmes sometimes means benefits might not be realised for some time. There’s an inherent danger of losing motivation and momentum when there is no short-term demonstrative output from the project, which confirms whether or not the programme is on track.

One strategy to help avoid this is to split the upgrade programme into a series of smaller, more achievable projects and tasks. This way the benefits can be seen sooner, with recognisable value released back into the organisation incrementally. Taking this approach can help maintain focus and allow those working on the programme – as well as the wider company – to see results more frequently. Any associated risks with upgrading, whether technical, financial or organisational can be better managed if tackled in smaller steps. This approach can also reduce the scale and complexity of the initial required investment, which can reduce concerns from finance teams in terms of risk and commitment and make the delivery of value more manageable and realistic.

4. Streamline the back-end

Layering on several solutions and taking on multiple ‘best of breed’ systems can sometimes cause issues in back-end systems and can lead to a complex IT environment, overloaded with systems which aren’t able to speak to one another, sometimes leading to more long term problems. This is where checks and balances come into play. While it’s important to preserve a core team to deliver on project requirements, it is also valuable for organisations to implement a separate governance model to challenge the complexity of the proposed upgrades and ensure that any upgrades can adequately ‘talk’ to existing systems.

It can also ensure that security of the business is upheld whilst systems are being upgraded. By carrying out regular checks and balances, IT teams can identify any vulnerabilities in the new system, and put preventative measures in place to mitigate the threat of cyberattacks or wider integration issues that may stop certain solutions from working as they should.

5. Ensure strong leadership

Any effective systems upgrade requires leadership on several fronts. Firstly, the project requires strong and consistent technical leadership end-to-end. Leadership and engagement, however, is also required at management level to ensure technologists are adopting solutions that deliver benefits for the whole business and not just their specific department. Ahead of even starting the project, the leadership team must look and assess all risks involved and then consider the long-term running of the upgrade and carve out lines of responsibility for ongoing management. The upgrade should also have an executive sponsor who will also be accountable for delivering the benefit.

Upgrading complex systems requires involvement on an organisation-wide scale. A culture which questions the definition and requirements of an upgrade is healthy and helps ensure that clear business benefits and value for money remain key drivers in any project. Upgrading should not be a siloed effort or seen as a specialist enterprise. Wider input early on will deliver high value solutions that are fit for purpose and guided by practical business-centric benefits from the outset.

Tony Hughes, Chief Products Officer, Civica
Image source: Shutterstock/niroworld