Working as a consultant in Ireland I have had the privilege of working in lots of different innovative businesses. Many of these businesses make great use of a wide range of information technologies – both on premises and cloud based, packaged and custom built. More often than not management has an understanding of the importance of IT to the business (and to the future of the business) but faces challenges in how to support and exploit these opportunities.
There is a growing awareness of the opportunities offered through managed services, data centres, cloud computing. In general these and related solutions offer the opportunity for management to focus on strategic objectives and value-add, while outsourcing some of the plumbing. There are also real possibilities in terms of replacing or upgrading systems with minimal capital outlay.
However I see many examples of applications support and development headaches – with respect to legacy systems. (People seem to confuse ‘legacy’ with something from the dark ages – it often references software implemented in the last few years). In many cases the legacy applications have been heavily customised (by an inhouse team or the third party vendor). As a result the company is left with a major exposure to/ dependence on a relatively small group of people e.g. one or two apps support people in-house or a small apps development team within a small third party vendor.
This seems to be a recurring pattern – a key apps support person leaves and operations are significantly impacted (time spent finding a replacement, getting the replacement up to speed, rescheduling planned development work, etc). The size of operation does not merit retention of additional support personnel – so it is difficult to avoid the hiatus arising on departure of a key staff member. If the apps support is supplied by a third party – then they most likely also struggle to maintain any depth in the support team.
So what is the impact of all of this? Well, the very information systems which are meant to be adding value become a liability, a risk to the business, a delay on business initiatives, an impediment to change and innovation.
I am often asked to provide a fix – how does the company sort out this issue?
Traditionally we would have checked to see whether development has been executed in a controlled manner – user specifications, testing, training, documentation, etc. In a smaller environment inevitably short cuts will have been taken. Also, depending ion the development environment, they may have migrated to an iterative methodology, based on prototyping.
The longer term answer will often include a migration away from current systems, accompanied by gaining an understanding of the true cost of customisatiom. The analyst and programming build is often only the small part of the cost of customisation – the real cost (which has to be balanced against the benefits) often arises from the dependence created on key inhouse personnel and/or third party vendor personnel. And from my experience most of this customisation could and should have been avoided.
So what can the company do in the interim – when they have lost the key people (either inhouse of at the third party vendor)? Obviously look to add a replacement person(s) to the team – with appropriate skills/experience in the relevant tools, platforms and/or business environment. But as soon as possible the company needs to start putting in place a strategy to migrate from the current serious business exposure to an operationally and, potentially, strategically advantageous situation. Any such situation in which the day to day ops of the company are contingent on the continued availability of one or two people needs to be addressed. And generally this will require elimination of much of the heavy customisation to migration to alternative business processes and supporting applications.
For those who have not yet hit the problem – think carefully before you customise, before you engage with vendors who do not have a roadmap and a broad platform. Build sustainable business processes and sustainable applications.