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What to do when your core legacy systems no longer 'spark joy'

Like bedroom closets crammed full of outdated clothes and unused gifts, legacy core systems in some organizations have become vessels of useless clutter. Years of customization, best-of-breed implementations, workarounds, and deferred maintenance have left these backbone technologies in varying stages of health, usefulness and viability.

Unwinding webs of complexity and dependency in the core can be daunting. Moreover, jettisoning core components that, to paraphrase the popular patron saint of tidy closets, Marie Kondo, no longer “spark joy” is no easy task. Yet with innovation disrupting markets at an unimaginable pace, cleaning out your tech closet and modernizing legacy enterprise systems so they can better support change is a critical step on the road to a digital future.

Consider this: When we talk about core modernization, we are talking about technology solutions that have for years been critical to business success. The investments made in these tools have delivered impressive returns.

But with the technology landscape changing so quickly, organizations are asking several fundamental questions: Have these core systems—which were not designed to meet the intense demands current customer-facing technologies place upon them—outlived their usefulness? Are they an obstacle on the path to “digital joy”? Is it possible to revitalize legacy assets and extract additional value from them?

For the same reason we dread cleaning out our closets, some organizations recognize the challenges they face in the core and decide to punt. This may work in the short term, but the window for punting is closing. External factors in the market demand more real-time access, more analytics, and more functionality. Customers expect highly customized information and experiences, delivered instantly—all expectations that place new demands on existing systems. Internally, a chorus of C-suite and business voices demanding “more, better, faster!” grows steadily louder.

You may be able to get away with doing nothing for now, but will you be able to recognize when that changes? Until you clean out your IT closet and take steps to modernize your core, you risk falling behind your competitors.

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First, get started by reviewing your technology inventory. Assess your portfolio and start defining and refining your “to be” state. Plan to attack legacy assets that take up space in your stack and add layers of unnecessary complexity.

Next, spruce up the systems you’ve kept by deploying one or more modernization strategies, known collectively as the “Five Rs”: Replatform, Revitalize, Remediate, Replace and Retrench.

Replatform: Spruce up old platforms through technical upgrades, updates to latest software releases, migration to modern operating environments (virtualized environments, cloud platforms, appliance/engineered systems, in-memory databases, or others), or porting code bases.

Revitalize: Freshen up systems by layering on new capabilities that enhance underlying processes and data. Efforts typically center around usability—either new digital front-ends to improve customer and employee engagements, or visualization suites to fuel data discovery and analysis. Analytics are another common area of focus—introducing data lakes or cognitive techniques to better meet descriptive reporting needs and introduce predictive and prescriptive capabilities.

Remediate: Tidy up the cobwebs of technical debt and internal complexities that hold back agility. Consider simplifying the operating environment or enabling new options. Simplification might involve instance consolidation, master data reconciliation, rationalizing custom extensions to packages, or simplifying the underlying code of bespoke solutions. Creating new options might involve integration to make data available as APIs to drive digital solutions, improve the reach of cloud investments, or simplify the ongoing care and maintenance of core systems.

Replace: Clean up by introducing new solutions for parts of the core. This may mean adopting new products from existing vendor partners. In some industries, it may involve revisiting “build” versus “buy” decisions. Use these pivots to revisit the business’s needs, building new capabilities that reflect how work should get done, not simply replicating how work used to get done on the old systems.

Retrench: Or wait and do nothing for now—which can be a strategic decision as you understand that that the clock is ticking. “Good enough” may be more than enough, especially for non-differentiated parts of the business. Weigh the risks, understand the repercussions, inform stakeholders, and focus on higher-impact priorities.

Determining which combination of the Five Rs can help you achieve your goals means knowing which core components meet your company’s business objectives and which do not, and what the market and your customers are demanding. Consider which assets address business priorities, like the ability to respond to market conditions and address evolving customer needs. Then layer in technology concerns—reliability, security, and scalability.

The answers you uncover can help you decide what to keep in your IT closet, and what to throw away. More importantly, they can help you harness a streamlined, revitalized core to usher in your company’s digital future. And that’s something to feel joyful about.

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