Bold CIOs are breaking free of legacy tech

It's hard to become a nimble digital disruptor if you're weighed down by systems anchored in the past. Many CIOs are working to escape the grip of outdated IT.

Rotary Club members who donate $1,000 or more to the Rotary Foundation get a lot of special attention. They are named Paul Harris Fellows in honor of the organization's founder. They receive a certificate and an elegant lapel pin. It's an important award in the Rotary world, and one that has been around since 1957. But recently it had become the source of a lot of unhappiness.

"We were hearing incessant complaints from [donors] because recognition would sometimes arrive two to three months after they made the contribution," says Rotary International CIO Peter Markos. "This is a big recognition in our clubs, so they were looking for something more like two to three weeks." The culprit was Rotary's badly outdated processes and technology. "We couldn't do it in less than six to eight weeks, and sometimes twelve," Markos says.

Any CIO in a large organization that's more than 20 years old will understand his dilemma. "I don't think Rotary is different from a lot of other organizations in that we have systems that have been around for a while," Markos says. "Some were built to fill a need 15 years ago when they couldn't find a product in the marketplace. Then they cobbled other things on until it became a maintenance nightmare." So two years ago, the organization began work on a three-year plan to replace its older technology with more modern alternatives, and to simplify its systems as much as possible. That has resulted in many changes--beginning with much faster recognition for Paul Harris Fellows. "We've implemented a solution with a guaranteed [result in] 10 days," Markos says. "We've been meeting that."

fea clay johnson Steven Vote

Clay Johnston, global CIO of GE Power & Water, says business execs are leading the charge to ditch outdated tech. They're asking: How do we go faster? How do we move from a industry business to a digital industrial business?

It's an increasingly common story. "The legacy life cycle

is coming to a quick end," declares Stephen Andriole, a former CTO and CIO, and now the Thomas G. LaBrecque professor of business technology at Villanova University. "The data we collect suggests that a combination of cloud [computing] and the decline of legacy maintenance and support is leading more organizations to make the transition more quickly."

Fear of disruptors

Factors such as the rise of cloud computing, the growth of shadow IT, and the challenge of maintaining old technology are certainly driving the rush to mothball outdated systems. But there's an even bigger motivator: Legacy technology is hobbling innovation at many organizations. That's frightening to C-suite executives who have seen disruptors bring momentous change to a number of industries--Netflix in the video rental market and then broadcast TV, Uber in the taxi business and Airbnb in the hotel industry, to name a few. Business leaders may be wondering if their industries or companies are next. If so, there may be little they can do to defend themselves if they depend on systems from yesteryear.

"These disruptive models are all greenfield-built," says Donovan Neale-May, executive director of the Business Performance Innovation (BPI) Network, an organization for executives involved in innovation and business transformation. "Business leaders have zeroed in on the fact that there's a lot of wealth creation going on by companies that are not limited by older, less adaptable, moribund technology."

A recent BPI Network survey of 250 business leaders shed stark light on their frustration. While 70 percent of the respondents reported that tech has become far more important to their businesses, only 46 percent rated the level of innovation in their companies' IT groups as good or very high. And only 43 percent said their IT groups are doing a good job of becoming a strategic, responsive and valued business partner.

These executives are keenly aware when their infrastructure is dated, and they're at least as unhappy about it as IT is, Neale-May says. "There's a plethora of new technologies, such as adaptive analytics, that are providing business intelligence. But you can't use them with legacy infrastructure. We want to make smarter, better, quicker decisions but we can't because the old technology is plodding along."

Preventing the cool stuff

It should thus come as no surprise that C-level executives are more receptive to legacy replacement projects than ever before. In fact, rather than having to sell the CFO or CEO on why replacing older infrastructure is a worthwhile investment, CIOs are fielding C-suite requests that they do so.

fea michael macrie Steve Woit

Michael Macrie, CIO at Land O' Lakes, led a project called Bedrock to move its core systems off of legacy technology. Now the IT organization has a cloud-first and mobile-first culture.

"The business units' CEOs are driving the move to get rid of legacy," says Clay Johnson, global CIO of GE Power & Water. "They ask, 'How do we go faster?' We need to move from an industrial business to a digital industrial business. We have to get IT to be faster. We have to do things differently."

One of two scenarios typically drives legacy replacement, says Andrew Horne, IT practice leader at CEB (formerly called the Corporate Executive Board). In the first, "a nimbler competitor begins to emerge and the business leaders come to the CIO and say, 'Let's match this,'" he says. The CIO then explains that matching the upstart would take two years because the competitor started from scratch while the established company will have to build onto the systems it already has. "That's not a great message," Horne says.

The second scenario begins with a shadow IT initiative, when the marketing department or some other business unit sets up a new system on its own. This is not uncommon these days: "We're seeing [non-IT] business leaders get much more involved in technology than they've ever been," Horne notes. At some point, that business group turns to the IT department for help and the project stalls. "The roadblock IT puts up is that we have to integrate this with our existing system," he says. "It's becoming much more apparent to business leaders why legacy technology is a problem: It prevents you from doing the cool stuff you want to do."

"Based on our data, the only companies that are trying to keep legacy systems alive are those that absolutely, positively, only see IT as a cost center," Andriole says. But even some of them are changing their ways. For example, Land O'Lakes, traditionally treated IT as a necessary expense, to be reduced as much as possible, but then, "around 2008, our company really started on a strategic growth path after several years of shedding businesses and rebalancing our portfolio," says Michael Macrie, senior vice president and CIO. "It became clear that legacy technology was a real barrier to continued growth."

Though that realization occurred before Macrie joined Land O'Lakes, he's well aware of the problems that drove the food maker to change its approach to IT. "For instance, we had no mobile capabilities," he says. "We had phone systems that literally would cut out. We were on a desktop platform that was fairly unsupportable and could not run the latest software our business wanted to deploy. To address everything required the mind shift that technology was a key enabler and not just a cost to be minimized."

Heading to the cloud

Land O'Lakes made that mind shift and from 2010 to 2014 engaged in a project called Bedrock to move its core systems off of legacy technology. As many of those systems as possible were moved to the cloud, Macrie says. "Cloud-first wasn't part of the original plan. But halfway through, we realized the value and speed to market [enabled by software as a service]," he says. "The changes we wanted to implement were being enabled much more quickly in areas where we used SaaS technology. So [starting in 2012] we instituted a SaaS-first and mobile-first culture in IT."

Thanks to that approach, the IT group has enjoyed a good deal of post-project success, according to Macrie. "We're seeing significant increases in user adoption, increased customer satisfaction, and quicker time-to-value for implementations and conversion projects," he says. "We're seeing reduced costs in the initial implementation and sometimes in ongoing expenses." And IT is devoting a lot less effort to maintenance, with much of that work now being done by cloud providers. "The things we do [in IT] can have more strategic impact," says Macrie.

At GE Power & Water, IT has made a similar push to the cloud over the past year, according to Johnson. Ordinarily, "I would have to update all the hardware and software every couple of years. As we move applications to the cloud, we let providers do that for us," he says. GE Power & Water is also consolidating its many different platforms and applications. Those two moves combined--cloud plus consolidation--have let GE Power & Water reduce its spending on IT server infrastructure by 20 percent (that's $19 million) in the past 18 months, Johnson says.

Increasingly, such an approach is the norm. "Moving to the cloud is absolutely the preferred methodology to get off legacy systems," Andriole says. "Maybe 95 percent of those still dealing with legacy systems are moving to the cloud."

This is partly because objections to public cloud deployments are waning. "A few years ago, there were perhaps three concerns about the cloud," Horne says. "One was, this is such a big company that we can run our private cloud more cheaply. Increasingly, that's not the case and even the largest companies don't have the scale that the largest cloud providers do."

A second concern was that cloud computing was an emerging market and the vendors lacked maturity. But now there are well-established cloud providers that can address the concerns of large enterprises. For example, some countries don't allow companies to store people's personal information beyond their borders. That kept some data out of the cloud because some systems are hosted in other countries. But now there are cloud providers whose services don't cross international borders.

The third concern was that the cloud wasn't secure. That led some companies to adopt no-cloud policies for their most sensitive information. That attitude is changing. "Many CIOs realize that their security budgets and security sophistication are dwarfed by Amazon" and other large providers of cloud services, Horne says. "Some of it gets political. It's less about security and more about, if something does go wrong, who's to blame? If I'm a CIO, is it easier to explain if something went wrong internally or with a vendor who ultimately I'm responsible for? Those who are politically savvy know which is more survivable in their organizations. But for scalability, efficiency, security and reliability, they're quickly coming around to the view that the cloud is at least as good as anything they could do in-house."

Creating an integration layer

Of course, a cloud deployment isn't the only option. Some CIOs are creating an integration layer instead, allowing legacy platforms and applications to work with modern systems. And some are replacing older systems with more modern ones that are still hosted on-premises.

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