I’ve often heard that migrating from a legacy to more modern applications is akin to swapping out the engines of a 747 jetliner while it’s 35,000 feet in the air. The enterprise needs to keep running, with as little downtime as possible (or preferably none).

That analogy, of course, suggests the impossibility and impracticability of it all. Many insurance companies, in fact, are opting instead to run multiple systems in parallel – a mainframe supporting one group of policyholders, a newer system running another group, and still another supporting some other business functions. Much of the time, these multiple and overlapping systems result from mergers and acquisitions. Layer on top of this newer cloud and big data analytics applications, and you have the perfect stew of today’s back-end operations. Everything works, but every attempted step at progress is too painful to contemplate.

I actually recently came across a better – and more hopeful analogy for making the transition from legacy to smarter systems – and this sticks, offering a better sense of what it may take to go about the ultimate transformation.  CIO’s Bradley de Souza suggests that IT transformation is similar to that of urban renewal. In his discussion, he points to the way out of the legacy thicket with a minimum of pain – enterprise architecture.

For an illustration of what he means, think back on the original efforts to eradicate urban blight and make cities better places for their residents to live and work. Federal, state and local governments attempted “big-bang” approaches – razing entire neighborhoods and building sterile, concrete projects in their place. These efforts ultimately did little for the quality of life and vitality of the city, often having the opposite effect. What has been recognized is that the strength of urban areas comes from preserving neighborhoods, and providing residents the vision and resources to build and flourish.

That’s what enterprise architecture is all about as well. EA is a collaborative effort that brings together system and data owners from across the enterprise, and supporting their efforts to build their businesses. As de Souza states, “urban redevelopment and renewal requires long-term planning, long-term funding and more importantly, a long commitment and vision to see it through.”  It supports more organic incremental change and transformation, evolving technology in sync with the business.  Simply dropping a huge technology solution on top of a business will never, in and of itself, magically deliver positive transformation, market growth, and profits. It takes work on the ground, which eventually should be supported by technology. 


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