Is becoming digital a business IT zero-sum game?

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If we look at the typical enterprise business and overlay the modern mantras linked with it (software is eating the world, every company is becoming a software company, developers are the new king makers, etc.) it is easy to see why there is a tremendous amount of focus (pressure) on needing to be at the forefront of the digital revolution. Failing to do so threatens to chew up and swallow your existing business whole through the advent of previously unprecedented disruption.

With the increasing maturity and capability of features being provided by cloud services, the ability to work on and generate new business value with increasing velocity is becoming mainstream and no longer the ‘secret sauce’ of the few.

Digital opportunities

For some enterprises this clearly represents an opportunity to emerge and take a lead in new areas that incorporate the ability to aggregate, store and reason against vast quantities of data; generating new information and insight-led business value. For others, they will go on the defensive looking at ways to stave off this disruption and the obvious impact it will ultimately have on their business. Whichever type of business you are it is very definitely front of mind.

Legacy IT

However, within your thinking about technology needs, you must consider the business you already run today and the systems that are required to service this. In many enterprises the historical lifecycle of these systems starts with them having been nurtured and nursed in the early days when the investment held the highest level of new business value, over time this stabilises and becomes business as usual and eventually falls in to the rear-view mirror as the focus moves to the next potential business growth focus.

The business criticality of these systems doesn’t diminish over this period and typically within the later stages is when a business outsources the responsibility to run and maintain them enabling their teams to refocus on new growth areas. The focus from this point forward for these systems is most likely to be one of optimisation whilst preserving stability and typically this may mean some form of transition or transformation by making use of the cloud.

This combination of the above – maintaining legacy systems whilst adopting new digital capabilities – introduces the potential for a new phenomenon, which could result in a non-zero-sum game impact to your business IT.

Traditionally, the balance between the systems that generate today’s income with the cost and time that innovation requires to chase those of the near future were maintained in balance, the investment budgets allocated, and the cost of innovation meant that there was a high degree of focus on one or two things, which resulted in an relatively easy-to-maintain change and adoption model. However, cloud changes this. Both the cost and the time restrictions associated with innovating have been significantly lessened through ease of access to highly advanced cloud services. With the result being that within a similar budget allocation much more can be achieved at greater velocity and unchecked this can be highly disruptive to traditional change controls and organisation structures.

Many will see the front end of this as positive. There are worse problems to face than getting to new revenue faster and it is difficult to argue against this.

Tension

However the ability to get more done also introduces the potential for an uneasy imbalance. It therefore becomes increasingly critical that you address how you deal with the heightened change velocity for your business IT in order to support the introduction of new revenue enhancing services. Typically these services are likely to be utilising technologies that are relatively unfamiliar, rapidly evolving, and bring about increasing levels of velocity and frequency but decreasing levels of control due to the wider consumption of advanced cloud services.

In reality this is going to require more than just an adjustment to your change control systems and processes, it is highly likely that adjustments are going to be required to your wider organisation to succeed.

Not doing so has the potential to overly inflate the level of technical debt that gets accrued versus the value derived. Consequently this risks building an increasingly expensive ‘future legacy’ with the potential of completely eroding the longer-term benefits of the initial innovation.

Furthermore, given the fact that the cloud is becoming the default for building net new business value there is a very real risk that the untapped latent value you already have locked within your existing, outsourced systems gets overlooked. This potentially results in a missed opportunity to tap additional value from existing investments if the primary focus for these systems is one of optimisation only.

No existing enterprise CIO is going to say ‘Right from Monday morning we are going cloud native, drop everything else’. This would be corporate suicide. At the same time, they know that the only way to continue to prosper is to move forward. To do this effectively it is key that you implement sound modern oversight, organisation structure, processes and technology to ensure that innovation can flourish at a pace that the business demands. There also needs to be something in place anchoring the innovation back to the things that made your business great in the first place. After all these modern advanced cloud services aren’t only available to you, your competitors also have equal access. To differentiate from the competition, you need to combine the use of all these elements with the uniqueness of your business and your understanding of your customers to continue to stand out from the crowd.

There is no escaping that a large enterprise is a complex thing and that the systems supporting the business are equally complex. There is industry and peer pressure to be in the leading pack and there is an expectation from your customers that your services continue to meet their evolving needs. As the old saying goes the only constant is change and with constant technical advances the rate of change has increased exponentially. Be courageous and take some time to understand the potential possibilities that could result from the choices you make now but most importantly continually challenge and adjust this understanding as you move forward to ensure that the balance between the debt and value you create remain sustainable.

Darren Ratcliffe, Head of technical strategy, Business & Platform Services, Atos
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