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Will we see less technical debt due to COVID-19 transformation?

Forrester analyst Brian Hopkins offers his thoughts on how trends might be affected by many companies' rush to adopt digital transformation as a result of COVID-19.

COVID-19 continues to upend plans for most organizations, especially as the pandemic drags on with little sign of stopping. In today's Forrester podcast, VP and principal analyst Brian Hopkins explains that there are three different scenarios that companies are experiencing, whether that's simply trying to survive, experiencing growth or adapting and developing a vision. Part of the experience for companies right now is tackling technical debt and deciding whether adopting digital transformation will help reduce that debt.

Podcast highlights

1. Digital transformation saw a resurgence due to pandemic

Brian Hopkins: What it has really done is it's revived the idea of digital transformation. We took a survey immediately before the pandemic, luckily enough we didn't know it was in January, it was our biggest survey on journeys and priorities. And we asked about business priorities in that survey. And digital transformation was like, middle of the road, right? And frankly, we have been talking about digital for a long time. And so, from a Forrester perspective, we were seeing that term kind of being retired, right? Not a lot of companies thought it had legs and had been largely focused on growth, largely focused on customer engagement channels. And a lot of companies had been investing in that until, well, we hit the pandemic.

We took a survey in May to kind of see where priorities were. Digital transformation jumped from middle of the pack up to near the top, like, it jumped up four points. Right below digital transformation, of course, cost reduction also jumped up two position points in the priorities. So, we think that story, cost reduction and digital transformation together, really tell kind of a different thing, which is it's no longer about just going and pursuing customers and growing through digital. What it really became about obviously, in the pandemic was, how do I operate an efficient business, take cost out and need to do digital transformation on an end-to-end basis?

2. How an airline handled one instance of technical debt at the start of the pandemic

Hopkins: If you talk to Craig LeClair, one of my analysts, colleagues, he tells a really interesting story about an airline that we actually put into research. Through a seven-day period, through RPA, [the airline] was able to take out the back-office effort of 28 humans to process cancellations because there are massive amounts of cancellations in these companies. This company realized that they had ignored that, and it was a largely human process. And they could not scale up to the massive number of cancellations they had. So, they brought in an RPA exercise and in seven days, we're able to wire a lot of that and get around that technical debt. So, I think there's been a lot of creative efforts to date, but I think going forward you're absolutely right. Companies are recognizing that business -- and we've written this and researched -- that business resiliency going forward is going to be a new competitive advantage.

3. Does technical debt go away or is it something you'll always be fighting?

Hopkins: I'm not sure I know the answer, there's really two sides to the coin. On one side, you could point to the fact that we still have a lot of our business running on mainframes and running on legacy code. And has that really changed over the last 30 years or have companies just recognized that that's something they have to live with? And maybe they can wrap those things in services and get away from having to get off of that technology. And frankly, you've got, IBM is doing amazing things with System Z. So, the mainframe may not be the beast that we once thought it was. So, one hand it's like, well, you know, technical debt is something we're going to live with forever. And on the other hand, there's this idea that we're talking about in terms of the expected acceleration of digital that may make any company not willing to get off of all the money that it's spending very hard to compete. And I don't think anybody knows the answer. I could kid you if I thought that was true. But there's really two arguments, and they're equally weighted.

Want to hear more Forrester insights?

Hopkins delves deeper into the potential trends around technical debt and companies adapting to the new normal. For more discussions around digital transformation during 2020 and beyond, check out Forrester Research's What It Means podcast.

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