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Tech Industry

Why blaming technology is a cop-out

When productivity starts to flag, don't blame legacy technology, writes industry watcher Jon Oltsik. The real problem? Legacy IT and the organizational havoc it wreaks.

There are no two words more demeaning in the computer industry than "legacy technology."

The connotation is clear: That technology is washed-up, past its prime, and no longer useful. Our industry has been throwing around the label for years, but blaming technology alone is a cop-out. The real problem isn't legacy technology at all. The real problem is legacy IT.

When talking about legacy IT, I'm referring to all those information technology departments that can't keep up with business demands. They drag down companies by being the cause of high costs, missed revenue opportunities, and slow execution.

Organized around functional technologies--a mainframe group, a network group, a storage group--legacy IT departments are organized the same way they were 30 years ago. But theirs is a fragmented approach that focuses on parts rather than on the creation of coherent business systems.

The relationship between business and legacy IT personnel often borders on the dysfunctional.
What's more, the relationship between business and legacy IT personnel often borders on the dysfunctional. Meetings between the two groups are long and often end in frustration--if not outright anger. You might think that they spoke different languages and shared a mutual mistrust. In a way, they do.

While the business side wants to focus on what's needed and why, IT can't get beyond the question of how: how to create a technology strategy, how to qualify vendors, and how to go about implementation The relationship is sometimes so fraught that I've seen situations where the business side decided to outsource technology to escape from this perpetual quagmire.

The upshot is that projects take forever to complete. Infighting and finger pointing replaces teamwork, and the whole company suffers.

The grim picture painted here is not unusual. Even companies with good intentions and good working relationships between IT and business managers suffer the symptoms of legacy IT.

In my experience, relatively few enterprise companies have successfully dealt with the legacy IT issue. Many companies recognize it as a problem but nonetheless find it a challenge to make the transition to a business-centric IT model.

Business solutions, not technology widgets, create revenue and cut costs.
Even more troubling, a small minority of firms still denies that any problem exists. As the scope of their legacy IT problem grows, they struggle to maintain their current IT portfolio. They're only making it more difficult to move forward, the day they finally realize change is knocking on their front door.

That may be too late. Without a major awakening--and solution--legacy IT will choke these companies within three years.

There are no silver bullets here. Eighty to ninety percent of the solution is contingent upon organizational and process changes. Chief information officers need to treat these problems with a great deal of seriousness. At a minimum, this requires the following:

• Making sure there are open and active communications between IT and business managers at all times.

• Compensating the technical teams depending upon their success with business and technical goals.

• Building a cross-functional organization with IT teams of managers, generalists, and specialists--all with the right skills to manage critical business services.

• Gathering comprehensive baseline metrics and measuring progress.

Will IT managers see the light? I believe they will because the alternatives would be disastrous: You would either put the IT department at risk of being outsourced or watch the company gradually lose its competitive edge.

The real question isn't whether it'll happen--it's when. But in this game, timing is everything. CIOs must get help if necessary, but their procrastination could end in career suicide. Business solutions, not technology widgets, create revenue and cut costs. Companies need responsive, business-focused IT organizations that can create and then manage these solutions. Legacy IT works against all that.

It's a lesson companies will have to recognize sooner rather than later.