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Digital transformation framework: Bridging legacy apps to new tech

One facet of a digital transformation framework involves finding a way to expose data and functionality in legacy apps to a new environment. BPM expert Dan Morris knows how.

Companies and their CIOs today are facing a serious challenge. Legacy IT infrastructure and applications are a...

constraint as CIOs look to modernize and adopt newer technologies. There's a cobbled-together mix of hardware, software and communications systems. Application and infrastructure documentation is generally poor, data quality is often an issue, and application change can be complex and unpredictable. And, the problem is only getting worse as CIOs and CTOs take on support for mobile technology and social apps. The bottom line is that many IT shops don't have the flexibility and agility required to provide high-quality support in a cost-effective manner, making every activity more complicated than it should be.

To help a company remain competitive and position it to take market share in the rapidly emerging global techno-society, this old inflexible IT environment will need to change. It simply cannot support rapid or low-cost change, and, in many cases, it cannot easily work with advanced IT tools such as business process management systems (BPMS), robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), simulation, analytics or business performance management -- tools that will be key to operational competitiveness in the future.

For most IT organizations, the way to get there is through a digital transformation framework, which produces a radically different and modern approach to technology and support that is based on a principle of business agility. It emphasizes moving quickly to adjust to the way the customer in the global techno-society wants to interact.

Digital transformation requires a new business operating vision and a strategy on how to deliver that vision. It is thus holistic and includes technology infrastructure, tools, applications, communications, staff capabilities, staff competencies and more. It is not the installation of a new ERP system or going paperless or any one of a hundred single actions. All can be part of a digital transformation framework, but these single steps do not constitute digital transformation.

Digital transformation requires the CIO to work closely with corporate planning to define the type of support that will be needed and how the technology infrastructure and capability will evolve and to create a flexible investment plan that can be adjusted over time. Key elements must include the redesign of the technology infrastructure to reduce complexity and cost while increasing scalability, a rethinking of how business and IT work together, and an ability to quickly adopt and integrate new advanced technologies.

'Wrapping' new tech over legacy applications

Until recently, this goal has been almost impossible to achieve, because few companies have the ability to replace legacy infrastructure and applications. And it has been almost impossible to unlock legacy functionality and data for use with modern technology; instead, companies ended up with two distinct environments, which exacerbated complexity problems. But now, with the creative use of BPMS and RPA, for example, a layer of new technology can be "wrapped" around legacy applications to cordon off much of their complexity and redundancy while opening their functionality and data to users.

With the creative use of BPMS and RPA, a layer of new technology can be 'wrapped' around legacy applications to cordon off much of their complexity and redundancy while opening their functionality and data to users.

Such an environment is possible only because BPMS and RPA tools have evolved to enable control of legacy application execution and access of data through internally defined (low-code or no-code) applications or bots (the latter with RPA specifically). While a hybrid environment is not simple to set up, it can be done.

This blending of application program environments will likely require businesses to update the IT hardware. Over time, the typical average IT operating environment will evolve to this model, if the right investments are made.

Of course, creating this type of hybrid application strategy will require the CIO's and CTO's involvement and will need to be considered as part of any digital transformation framework.

In creating this transformation framework, it will also be necessary to factor in the following:  

  1. Rapid shifts in business operation and IT support as markets change, customer buying demands evolve, new technologies drive new demands, new product opportunities emerge and so on.
  2. Simplification of the operation (business and IT) to allow for geopolitical shifts and location changes as the company adjusts to global manufacturing changes and business climates.
  3. Adoption of new ideas and technology, such as drones and driverless cars, by customers who will drive changes in society, products and customer lifestyles.
  4. Use of technology by customers that is more sophisticated than that used by many businesses.

Once these and other relevant factors related to each company's unique IT operation have been identified and analyzed, CIOs will need to evolve their ideas and create long-term digital transformation strategies. For these plans, it is imperative that the CIO and CTO focus on operational flexibility and aligning with business transformation strategies. They will also need to create a new and much closer relationship between IT and business managers. To some degree the underlying ability to support this business-IT collaboration has already started as business process analysis and BPMS vendors try to simplify their products and move the modeling and solution design components into the business area. This is also true of the RPA vendors and to some extent AI with IBM Watson.

Although widespread acceptance for much of this technology is still a little way off, the technology itself is here (BPMS is widely adopted now; RPA is a reality and being adopted; AI is mostly in the experimental stage but being implemented by early adopters).

So, as a CIO or CTO, are you ready for this new operating environment?

Creative thinking

One of the biggest problems with integrating this technology into a company's IT infrastructure and operation right now seems to be that many try to deal with the new technology following old technology models. For example, a BPMS is much more than an application generation tool, and when traditional Agile approaches are applied the results often fail to live up to vendor hype. However, when the new technology's capabilities are viewed creatively, many are finding its real power -- such as the orchestration of newly generated applications (from a BPMS or RPA tool), social apps for mobile tech, and legacy applications to form composite solutions.

Why the need for creative thinking? When selling these tools, vendors typically emphasize technical capabilities rather than business benefits. By encouraging your technical team to think beyond a product's technical merits, you help create space to solve business problems. But finding this problem-solving creativity is a challenge for CIOs and CTOs.

For IT teams that can get there, blending these new technologies will give new life to inflexible old applications. Moving to this mixed environment will also allow the CIO and CTO to critically look at application portfolios and decide what they will leverage and what they may replace.

CIOs that can think outside of the box will be able to envision possibilities and strategies that allow them to innovatively use emerging tools to create flexible support, rapid response, and low-cost and low-risk operations.

Next Steps

What is digital transformation?

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