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‘We Don’t Know’: IT’s Guilty Secret

The complexity of the enterprise application portfolio presents major challenges in responding to evolving business needs

Factors such as growing complexity, staff turnover rates, poor documentation, changes in responsibilities and business strategy have contributed to a lack of understanding and possession of appropriate skills in key corporate IT systems. The current gap in knowledge and know-how has put tremendous strain on today's IT department, which is expected to manage and execute all aspects of the business portfolio.

Possessing a deep understanding of each and every IT system can be a challenge, especially given that some of the countless enterprise software applications have undergone over 40 years of change and enhancement. However, admitting a lack of understanding and awareness will only further damage IT's already-precarious reputation. So develops IT's guilty secret - failing to tackle what it does not know.

Downstream impact on the IT department's ability to manage all aspects of delivery, cost, risk and operational efficiency is inevitable. How should IT leaders deal with this skeleton in the IT closet?

The Knowledge Gap
Unlike capital investments in physical assets, whose value changes over the years, the majority of software applications keep and increase their intrinsic business value and are rarely overhauled or replaced. Over time, these applications also continue to consume the majority of the IT budget.

The majority of IT organizations feel unable to deliver new requirements on time and often suffer from the high costs associated with doing so. Large portions of the budget taken up by mandatory "business as usual" tasks (routine maintenance, scheduled updates and deliveries, software and hardware updates, critical fixes, regulatory and legislative change projects) combine to form the growing phenomenon of IT debt as a result of the business demanding change faster than its underlying software assets can cope.

With IT in a constant fire-fighting mode, the less time-critical tasks such as routine documentation, internal training, knowledge transfer, or exploratory planning projects are shelved to allow for more pressing concerns.

There are a variety of options for dealing with these types of issues, including internal application overhaul projects and outsourcing to professional services organizations. Regardless of the chosen approach, the ability to appreciate and understand the existing applications and how they currently operate is the first step in determining how and what to change.

An Enterprise Application Challenge
Addressing a lack of knowledge needs to focus on the day-to-day manifestation of the problem:

  • Poor management control: IT staff having limited insight into the application portfolio and, as a result, cannot assign resources to work on what matters most to the business.
  • Slow turnaround on business needs: Applications become inflexible to be adapted quickly and without risk. Business users and IT staff struggle to translate requirements into applicaiton results.
  • Inefficient development processes: Global development teams spend up to as much as 80% of their budgets on maintenance activities, draining resources away from new, high-value projects.
  • Difficulty in selecting modernization projects: Businesses recognize the value of modernizing their application portfolios but need insight to prioritize and assign budget to these high-value activities.

Winning the Knowledge Battle
Most IT organizations face a reality of having no single group or individual that knows enough about the core systems to act as genuine subject matter experts on those parts of the IT estate. The age, complexity and inadequate investment over time has all but seen to that.

Power and control IT requires knowledge and insight: a centralized business and technical insight into core applications, enabling global IT teams to identify, prioritize and execute development activities that realign applications with current business requirements. The only viable way to win the battle is to use technology to regain the knowledge. Systems to collect detailed insight into an application portfolio, at a detailed technical level with supporting business and end-user information, can provide a centralized repository that can be securely accessed by users throughout the development team.

The information will need to include:

  • Rich technical insights: The analysis of source code across dozens of environments - from the mainframe to distributed applications - can provide detailed insights into the structure and function of even the largest and most complex systems.
  • Subject matter expertise: Users can discover and describe their applications in business terms so business users, analysts, managers, and architects focus their ‘business lens' on the logic, processes, architecture and issues that exist in the applications that automate businesses.
  • Additional insights: To further technical insights, users can collect additional related and business-level information about the app portfolio from third-party sources like HR, ERP, PPM, ALM and business service management technologies. The collected information provides powerful management intelligence about the cost, value, risk and priorities of an application portfolio.

The Benefits of Regaining Control
Seeing the ‘whole picture' provides improved business transparency so that applications can be reviewed, assessed and renewed to provide stronger support for the business's needs.

For architects, analysts and development professionals, increased visibility delivers a number of rewards. Centralized and detailed insight into the structure of applications means team members can quickly get up to speed and become more productive on even the most complex applications, boosting productivity by at least 20 percent.

As the analysis activity becomes more efficient, so will the development tasks. By sharing key analysis results through a common interface, such as Eclipse, to the developers' desktops, IT managers can help further improve the effectiveness of the change program.

More generally, detailed application insight enables technicians to discover, organize, and document core business processes buried within their applications much faster. This enables companies to find and - where necessary - reuse proven business rules in maintenance or larger change projects, such as SOA enablement, regulatory compliance, third -party software upgrades or major modernization projects.

IT - The Omniscient Innovator
The complexity of the enterprise application portfolio presents major challenges in responding to evolving business needs and represents a difficult secret reality for IT leaders. Application portfolio management and analysis tools are an effective first step in helping organizations understand their applications and prioritize their modernization efforts.

The ability to analyze and establish knowledge of critical systems across the entire IT estate is important in driving efficiency throughout an organization. It will help form a bridge between absent understanding of existing applications and how and what changes are necessary to modernize them. This will clear a path to innovation that is as smart as it is efficient, and should help IT to escape the knowledge gap that is all too often IT's guilty secret.

More Stories By Derek Britton

Derek Britton is an IT professional with over 20 years software industry experience. A computer science graduate from De Montfort University, Derek has held a variety of software engineering, technical consulting and product management positions in the IT industry, and is currently Director of Product Marketing at Micro Focus, the leaders in enterprise application modernization. Find Derek on Twitter at @derekbrittonuk.

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