IT changes in the blink of an eye, which can be hugely problematic for modern businesses. It can often feel like the moment a business fully adapts to a new IT system or way of operating, the technology shifts again, leaving the company with a difficult choice:
- Update their systems again in order to embrace the possibilities offered by technology, or…
- Stick to their existing systems
While the first option is undeniably the best – the more modern IT infrastructure is, the more secure and capable it is – many businesses choose or are forced to choose, the second option.
Time passes. More updates arrive. Once again, business owners look at the same options and decide that it would simply be far too much hassle to try to upgrade their system at this point.
More time passes. More opportunities to improve and update the business’ IT system arise. Again, the business owner decides that now isn’t the right time.
So the cycle continues: the possibility for updates and upgrades arise, businesses defer the decision, and continue with their ever-more outdated legacy IT system.
Eventually, the issue mushrooms into a new problem; years have passed, the opportunities for upgrades have been declined, and a business is now running a legacy system that is so tired and out-of-date that the prospect of upgrading seems nigh-on impossible.
The above scenario may sound far fetched, but it is a genuine issue that impacts millions of businesses – not to mention the US government – in the modern world. Old, obsolete IT systems are still in use, long beyond the point where most domestic users have moved on. For example, in 2017, 52% of businesses were still using Windows XP – despite the fact that XP was initially released in 2001. While we may hope that many of these businesses have since upgraded, the odds suggest this simply won’t be the case.
If your business is still using a legacy system – or you experience the same resistance to updates and upgrades as described above – then there are numerous significant problems you may face.
#1 – The risk of serious IT system issues
Many businesses – including household names – have experienced catastrophic failures in their IT systems, with the finger of blame pointed firmly at legacy systems. For example, in 2016, Delta Airlines suffered a power outage that grounded over 1,000 flights, with experts subsequently blaming legacy systems for the failure. What’s more, some experts believe that banks’ failure to modernize could be a contributor to the next great financial crisis. While all IT systems are vulnerable to failure, to an extent, the simple truth is that the vulnerabilities of legacy IT systems are far more severe.
#2 – The diminished capability for interactions
If a business is operating on a legacy system, they may eventually find that their system inhibits them from interacting with clients, customers, and B2B contacts. If, for example, a client is using a more up-to-date system, they may wish to share data via a format that a business operating a legacy system simply cannot access. This harms both the relationship with the client, but also the impression of the business in the client’s eyes; the business inevitably seems outdated and a little behind the times, all because of their legacy system.
In addition legacy systems limit employee management infrastructures. Making new HR practices, like flexitime, difficult. Good flexi-time policies need to include the ability to use multiple operating systems, mobile devices and cloud storage and management. In addition, employees then start hacking your IT system by using consumer systems to get the job done. Many businesses use WhatsApp as a communications tool which creates problems with managing the communication, legislation and possible cyberbullying and cyberstalking. This is why we chose to ban WhatsApp at our offices. The ability to provide this IT infrastructure is not inherent in legacy IT systems.
#3 – Poor security
In order to maintain security, IT systems are designed to continually update in response to new threats. This dynamic response is crucial to the health of any IT system but becomes next-to-impossible to achieve with legacy systems. Not only do legacy systems struggle to handle continual updates due to their size and lack of flexibility, but they also suffer from significant delays – updates and patches will be issued to the newest systems first, with legacy system updates always a secondary consideration. This delay can leave legacy systems vulnerable to known threats, simply because the update and fixes have yet to spread to older systems.
#4 – Failure to embrace the benefits of modern IT systems
Even in the last five years, business IT systems have changed hugely, allowing businesses to streamline their workload, maximize their productivity, and much more – but a considerable number of businesses are simply unable to take advantage of these developments due to legacy systems. In fact, nine out of 10 IT decision-makers believe that legacy systems are holding their business back, which is incredibly challenging – business is tough enough, so the impact of legacy systems is a complication that few companies can afford.
#5 – Excessive IT costs
Legacy systems are extremely expensive to maintain. It’s estimated that between 60-80% of IT costs to a business are spent on maintaining legacy systems, which essentially means businesses are investing a massive amount of their funds into systems that are already obsolete. Incurring such expense for so little reward – essentially just deferring the issues caused by the legacy system – is far from cost-effective, and can greatly impact the business’s finances for as long as the legacy system is in place.
#6 – The inability to be agile [Updated Jan 2021]
During the 2020 Covid Pandemic many businesses were forced to send their employees home to work. This became a huge endeavour for business as some needed to run fibre optics to the homes of support centre staff, some did not have the infrastructure to move their business operations virtual and almost all these business did not have an employee base who has the skills necessary to work remotely. Our business was lucky (or smart – you decide) as we made the decision early on to invest in cloud solutions and software to run our business, we did this because we believed in creating a flexible workforce – one that was able to work anywhere, anytime and on anything. We needed cloud systems to build this culture-driven workplace. It came in very handy when we had to move out of our office – our business was already virtual, and we moved out of our offices and went virtual in a matter of hours. If our tech was not up to date, we would not have been able to adapt to the new pandemic business environment as quickly as we had.
How can you avoid the problems caused by legacy IT systems?
In order to avoid the problems legacy systems can cause, the solution is rather straightforward: don’t use legacy systems. If your business is currently using a legacy system, upgrade it, and then continue to upgrade it in future. Simple.
However, implementing this rather obvious advice is usually a far more complex matter. Few business owners actively choose to keep legacy IT systems in place; instead, they feel that their hand is forced by circumstance, so merely stating that you should abandon legacy systems is hardly helpful. Instead, let’s focus on the reasons that business owners leave legacy systems in place; by resolving these, upgrading can be more obtainable.
Without a doubt, the biggest concern business owners have in regards to updating their system is cost. IT is an expensive consideration for any business, which is further strained by the need for continual system updates and refinement. If a concern over price is the driving factor of your reasons for continuing with legacy systems, then it may be worth looking to see if you can reduce IT costs elsewhere in order to finance legacy system upgrades. Given the importance of avoiding the legacy system issues as identified above, such a move is likely to be the right choice for the future of your business.
Less commonly, business owners will avoid updating legacy systems due to concerns over the process of adapting to new IT systems. Even the most tech-savvy staff may struggle with the transition to new systems, which could lead to overall business productivity reducing as employees transition to a new system. If this issue concerns you, then it’s worth investigating opportunities for continual training that may help employees adapt as quickly as possible. What’s more, it’s also worth noting that the more accustomed your employees are to change, the more likely they are to adjust each time the system is upgraded or updated – change becomes a fact of their professional life, and thus they can learn to adapt all the quicker.
Continuing with legacy IT systems can be tempting for businesses, but as we have seen above, the problems such systems often cause can greatly impact the business as a whole. It is therefore far preferable to focus on removing the barriers that are causing you to hesitate over upgrading your IT systems, then switching to a robust, continual update process that your business can continue to enjoy long into the future.
At Digitlab we consult with businesses to help them navigate their technology around legacy systems, we help them innovate, prototype and execute technologies. You can read about how we do this digital consulting, or download our paper on “Innovate Outside” or see some of our digital work.