3 Steps to Effective Application Modernization

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Even after convincing pitches, agencies need to choose the right technology based on their overall business goals.

A client recently mentioned that his state agency wanted to migrate more than 50 legacy applications to the cloud next year. This was a bold and exciting move, but why the sudden decision? It turns out that a software vendor had impressed them with a demo. The vendor claimed they could do the migrations in about a year, with little risk and at a low price. After all, the vendor explained, their “out-of-the-box functionality would cover 80 percent  of the requirements.”

We’ve all heard those pitches before, and perhaps some of us have made them. However, the reality can be quite different.

Cloud services, and especially the software-as-a-service model, have matured in the last few years. They are now commonly accepted solutions that governments and corporations use to transform their organization. But without thoughtful planning, there is a huge risk that a new SaaS solution is just adding another piecemeal technology solution. Tech stack sprawl, siloed programs and lack of qualified internal resources are just a few of the typical challenges that can result from not having carefully planned technical architecture and a long-term IT plan.

The key is selecting the right technology based on the overall business goals.Technology powers almost all of our actions. It is now the strategic enabler vital to accomplishing a business’ mission and objectives. Technology cannot be purchased in a vacuum. Rather, it should be planned according to a company or government agency’s business model.

So, how do you find the right technology that enables you to meet your business needs? It’s a matter of answering three key questions:

  • What are your business goals and how does your business work?
  • What is the proposed technology’s process flow and technology architecture?
  • Where are the gaps between your business needs and the proposed technology?

Going through this exercise will not only help demonstrate what the software can do but also identify important gaps in critical business functionality. After all, no single software solution can replace roughly 50 applications, despite claims about the “out of the box” functionality. The challenge is to understand the size and significance of those gaps.

What are your business goals and how does your business work?

A true business and technology strategy requires collaboration between the business and the technology teams. In other words, the people who will benefit from this software must closely work with the people responsible for deploying and maintaining the software. Both sides need to come together to understand and map out their business objectives, workflow processes, budget and technical constraints, in order to determine the best way to accomplish the mission.

To assist my client, I offered to hold follow-up meetings with a wide variety of the agency’s team members: executives and people from operations, accounting and IT. In doing this, we discovered widely varied understandings of the agency’s mission, vision and goals. Lack of clarity on mission and goals can be fatal to an organization. And this exercise helped us catch and correct it, in order to unify the agency.

For example, the technology team gained a better understanding of what the software was actually supposed to do! Yes, requirements around platform, scalability, upgrades, application support and software licensing agreements are important. But now, the tech team was able to make the connection of a SaaS software upgrade to the agency’s mission. IT was no longer about the “format” for delivering a government service. IT was now about enabling the value the agency creates for its customers.

What is the proposed technology’s business and technology architecture?

We conducted our own analysis of the software’s business and technical architecture. Initially, we used the vendor’s collateral, but then we dug in and built our own independent analysis. This was not as easy as it sounds. Lots of expertise is needed to truly understand someone else’s software. Having solution architects who are experts in the software is critical.

Functionality walk-throughs and technical analysis were key parts of putting this all together. So was having the right team. A group of functional experts, architects and analysts worked side-by-side with agency team members, which included program specialists. In the end, we delivered a functionality diagram that captured both the strengths and gaps of software. The agency was now able to effectively evaluate if a software solution was a fit.

Where are the gaps?

With the first two steps complete, we had clarity about the agency’s current environment and business goals, and the capabilities and limitations of the proposed technology. We could now compare this vendor’s software to the agency’s goals, needs, processes and technical framework. This comparison allowed us to understand what problems and opportunities are actually solved with “out-of-the-box” functionality.

A key component of this was the agency workflow. By mapping out how the agency conducted its business, we were able to estimate how “out-of-the-box” the software truly was. Yes, there were core functions that seemed like an easy fit. But there were also clear gaps in the software’s ability to handle steps in the workflow. In some instances, we estimated the gap could be fixed with a certain degree of configurations. In other instances, we questioned if separate third-party software was needed.

Whichever the case, configurations and third-party software meant extra cost, work and risk. All of this was separate from the vendor’s proposal.

Tying it all together

Once the analysis was done, it was clear to the agency that this solution should be part of the strategy for modernizing their applications. The business need was clear, and it would benefit both the agency’s customers and its employees. While the software really didn’t solve 80 percent of the requirements “out of the box” and the total cost to modernization would be more than the vendor’s proposal, this was the best-fit solution in helping the agency modernize its technology and accomplish its mission.

My client’s agency is now going through the IT planning process: how it will roll out the software, setup application support, and prioritize and sequence the applications for conversion. It may take more than a year, but this process has ensured that it will be done right.

Chad Kirkpatrick is a state and local lead for Grant Thornton Public Sector’s Strategy and Performance Improvement Practice. He is the former chief information officer for the state of Arizona.