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This week I had the opportunity to attend the Gartner Web Innovation Summit. Overall, the sessions were good … I really loved the one by Christine Connors @ Dow Jones on the Semantic Web – With the exception of Christine’s session (which I think was an advanced topic for the folks here) I’ve noticed that the sessions are not asking the audience to take the big steps necessary.

 

Some background: As we are dealing with larger and larger enterprises, I’m noticing a common conflict brewing. There is a demand from the business to create better user experiences that directly conflicts with the sheer complexity of the legacy systems & IT’s inability to make any progress forward. The truth is that most of these systems are “frankensteins” – 2 year old software bolted on 5 year old software bolted on 10 year old software (even all the way back to 20+ year old vacuum tube systems).  — The question: is your IT group enabled to pull your company into “today”?

 

Here’s the rub – how do you tell an enterprise to be innovative when business realities are not allowing them to be so. Hell, sometimes large enterprises are struggling to make simple, incremental improvements. And, the truth is most of them are not willing to take the risk and make large scale strategic moves to re-build their infrastructures from the ground up.

 

So… here we are at the Gartner Summit, primarily geared towards telling big business how to be  innovative… And I’m thinking to myself that these sessions are not really telling these people what they need to hear. I know it is not because of the quality of the analysts – when I meet with them individually they are very bright and have well informed opinions. I’m left feeling (I’m am over stating this for effect) that these analysts have just learned that enterprises are so opposed to change that the best these analysts can do is to incrementally bring enterprise into “this decade” … The bigger issue : change is happening so quickly that every year a business makes what they think is a big change, they are actually falling behind even further. 

 

Where does this leave us? Ironically, I believe the big winners of tomorrow are the market laggards of today. I think current market leaders in the enterprise are going to be less willing to take risks in areas where their competition may be willing to make them – and given the real value of making large investments in online customer centric initiatives, there is a very real potential to leapfrog.

 

My humble advice:

  • “Walk the factory floor”. In other words, take the time to talk to your IT folks (not just the managers, but the system analysts, developers, QA personal) … They know what needs to be done to bring you up to date, they know what legacy systems are holding you back. Let them know that you are not passing judgement on “how we got here” – I would say 80% of the fortune 500 is behind the times, and 99% of them have some legacy system skeletons. 
  • Talk to your customers – and involve objective 3rd parties in the process. Do not wholesale put your trust into what 3rd parties tell you – use them to give you insight without ego and another perspective (or even validation for what you have found in your own customer research)
  • Establish metrics for success – let the teams know how you will measure their efforts.
  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I’m not suggesting that all your legacy systems need to go (I’m not that delusional) – but put systems in place that starts to abstract the legacy environment from the presentation tier. That way, years from now, you can incrementally replace without having major impacts to the business
  • Get horizontal organization buy-in. Make sure the key stakeholders across the organization departments are all bought in. You may even need to help break down silos and create cross-departmental teams to help.
  • Invest now – Someone in your space is already doing pilots in online customer portals with RIAs or desktop software or employee productivity software…. all of which (if executed on properly) will show positive ROI results in short order.
  • Be patient – innovation is incremental. Gartner suggested that the ROI on these efforts is about 2 years. Don’t place unrealistic demands on release dates because that will force your IT to continue the frankenstein process.
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