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Legacy Systems Fail As Businesses Face Adversity

When unexpected business adversity and crisis strike, will your legacy business systems fail or meet the challenge?


This past year brought to light a major risk that public and private sector Information Technology leaders have feared, Legacy Systems, which are the mainstays or backbone operational systems in the private and public sectors, were unable to meet the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic, an unexpected disruptive event. Whether government agencies attempted to meet unemployment insurance volumes, tried to contract trace infected populaces, or private sector businesses confronted remote workforce issues or dramatic shifts in customer behaviors, these older technologies failed. The legacy technologies are rigid (not easy to change), brittle (not flexible), and their core inner workings are not well understood. This is the result of numerous factors such as aged out IT workforce, loss of institutional knowledge, no documentation, decades of layered code, and layers of entangled business logic all increasing complexity and diluting understanding. The net result was the inability of t legacy systems to be quickly modified in response to the emergent business needs stemming from the disruptive pandemic event. The failure of these legacy systems had significant cost impact on business, contributed to revenue loss, caused reputational harm, embarrassment, angry customers, and in the case of government, angry citizens depending on essential services reinforcing the perception of government “can never get it right”.

While the pandemic brought the legacy systems risk to light, the need to address or modernize the older technologies was known. The issue is now front and center. Modernization is not easy, inexpensive, quick or without its own challenges. Yet, inaction is not a prudent strategy. No one has a crystal ball as to when the next disruptive event will occur, leaving business and government crossing their fingers to see if their legacy systems can meet the next crisis or instead struggle, crash, and fail. Modernization is the prudent path.


Modernization requires a plan and blueprint for transforming the current legacy system to a modernized solution. Whether your strategy is to rewrite, replace, refactor, or digitally transform, the first step on your modernization path should be a deep fact-finding assessment of the legacy systems. This effort will provide the requisite and foundational knowledge to lay down a modernization blueprint and roadmap based on facts. Understanding what the old systems do and how they do it is critical. What are the business objects, data ingestion and outputs, code level business flows, business rules and points of interaction with other systems, databases, technology platforms, and customer/user interactions? Another important component for the assessment is understanding and sorting out the surround systems (shadow IT and satellite systems) created to augment the legacy stack. Having a deep understanding of the legacy systems and marrying it with your organization’s goals is pivotal to defining the modernization strategy, blueprint, and roadmap. There are automated tools, when used by industry experts and modernization consultants, that can ensure rapid results and valuable context for decision making. If the modernization agenda is on a longer horizon, the deeper assessment using automated tools can in a short timeframe provide online searchable documentation and understanding of the legacy system enabling “intelligent enhancement” which can reduce operational risk and support timely changes to the system to meet business needs.


While we wish we could snap our fingers and transform our legacy systems to modern applications and avert the underlying risks of rigidity, brittleness, lack of documentation and an aging out workforce, there are actions that can be taken to address the risk of legacy systems failing when the next crisis or disruptive events occur. The first step is to arm your IT team with knowledge and facts; the foundational step for modernization and an immediate step for “intelligent enhancement”.


About the Author:

Harry Hanelt is a member of HP Marin’s Executive office and is the firm’s CEO. He has over thirty-five years’ experience in both Consulting and Industry, where he has held leadership positions in several large firms including KPMG, BearingPoint, SunGard, and Heublein. Mr. Hanelt also served as the Managing Director and President of HP Squared LLC, an affiliated Data Strategy Consulting Business. Mr. Hanelt has been a keynote speaker at conferences and has served as an Industry Advisor to the University of Connecticut’s School of Business.

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