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Two Digital Transformation Time Bombs

Hire a Chief Digital Officer to don the pirate gear, raise the Jolly Roger, and take your ship on an adventure

Adjectives like "swashbuckling" and "romantic" rarely if ever apply to enterprise technology, so the fact that "rogue" IT is now a Thing should give one pause. Errol Flynn swooping down from a yardarm, disarming smile on his too-handsome face? Hardly the image you'd expect bringing your iPhone to work would elicit.

Yet rogues there be, sneaking digital contraband into their cubicle, unbeknownst to IT Big Brother. And while we all like to bend the rules, if only to shake up our Dilbertian existence with a fleeting moment of swashbucklery, rogue IT goes far beyond your secret Angry Birds at work addiction, or dare we say, that contraband DropBox account your entire team surreptitiously shares.

Rogues, after all, come in all shapes and sizes. When the rank and file practice a bit of derring do, it's one thing. When Big Brothers themselves - the executives who steer the ship - practice rogue IT, it's quite another. Yet this top-down scalawagness pervades enterprises far and wide, threatening to upend the IT ship altogether, CIO and all. The name of this nefarious ne'er-do-well? Your Digital Transformation Strategy.

Digital Transformation: A Rogue's Gallery
Imagine, if you will, you've been working your way up the officer's ranks of your vessel, and now you're the captain (or other C-level executive) of this ship you call your enterprise. Information Technology has always been a powerful asset in your treasure chest, from the early data processing days to the rise of monolithic enterprise apps. Then the Web and its evil twin Y2K hit, knocking you and your ship for a loop, promising a New Economy yet delivering a dot.com crash. After that perfect storm you told yourself you'd never again fall for the empty promises of the new technology sirens, singing their songs of business transformation but delivering only broken dreams.

Yet here we are, in the 2010s, and the siren song of new technology is louder than ever - and this time, there are far more voices in this craven chorus: Cloud Computing! Big Data! Social Media! Mobile Apps! DevOps! Added to this cacophony are the digital denizens of this new era, the Googles and the Amazons and the Netflixes, no longer mere dot.com darlings, but massive behemoths out to take a piece of everyone's pie, including yours. This time, sitting on the sidelines is not an option. Siren song or no, the world of business is changing, and your enterprise must change as well, or risk the deadly depths of the Charybdis of digital disruption and irrelevance.

But then you wake up from this reverie and look once again at the cold, hard reality of budgets and balance sheets, and you realize your IT department has their hands full with dull, dreary, yet absolutely essential legacy systems of record - all those numerous apps and infrastructure that have been collecting over the decades, sucking up money, yes, but keeping you in business all the while. Disruptive innovation is all very fine and good, but legacy technology and disruption don't mix. That old gear is just too brittle and important to mess with, right?

That's when it hits you: it's time to go rogue. Your IT department has way too much on its plate to handle the digital transformation you crave so desperately. So instead of asking your CIO to drive these new initiatives, you hire a Chief Digital Officer (CDO) to don the pirate gear, raise the Jolly Roger, and take your ship on an adventure into the wondrous digital future.

Hear that Ticking? Beware the Digital Disruption Time Bombs
We all know that genuine pirates and other such rogues are ruthless criminals, and yet a century of Hollywood mythmaking has turned them into heroes, courageous nonconformists who can justify their questionable deeds because of the presumably greater evil of the establishment from which they have rebelled. Today, we consider CDOs and their digital transformation initiatives to be examples of rogue IT - bucking the establishment, true, but with the best interests of the enterprise at heart. Motivation enough to forgive a bit of swashbuckling, perhaps?

After all, the legacy technology that runs the established portion of the business has a history of intractability. Legacy modernization has a reputation as being expensive, risky, and often lacking clear business drivers. And when we tried to abstract our legacy as flexible Services with the last decade's SOA initiatives, we found that architectural approach to be more expensive and difficult than we expected. Most SOA initiatives overpromised and underdelivered, leaving CDOs with few options but to go rogue and build digital initiatives largely separate from establishment IT.

Errol Flynn and his modern counterpart Johnny Depp notwithstanding, is it truly in the long-term best interest of the company for the CDO to go rogue? In the short term, absolutely. The technology buzzwords du jour aren't holding still, and moving quickly is essential to successful digital transformation. And if there's one thing traditional IT is bad at, it's moving quickly. Yet, while Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow has yet to meet his maker at the end of a rope, enterprises who place strategic bets on rogue IT risk two major time bombs going off in their face.

Time bomb #1: thinking that you can achieve the benefits of digital transformation without dealing with the legacy mess. It's tempting indeed to leave the established order behind. Many organizations think of their legacy IT as a single Gordian knot of complexity, where the only way to fix it is to somehow fix or replace the whole thing - an impossible task that would never come close to justifying its expense. The pirate's life sounds wondrous in comparison.

But remember, legacy is not monolithic. It's heterogeneous and multifaceted, and you don't have to fix the whole thing. Your core business agility drivers from transformation initiatives must connect to specific legacy goals while moving legacy toward agility, not away from it. Yes, you must pick your battles, as the legacy you do bring into your digital initiative will take time and money to fix - but never forget that your enterprise wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for the best of your legacy.

The challenges with legacy modernization in support of digital transformation are first, to tackle the right problems, and second, to take an approach that will actually work. After all, such fixes require both the appropriate abstraction as well as technology that can support those abstractions. Not SOA - or at the least, not only SOA, but one big step above SOA. For specific legacy capabilities to properly support the digital transformation, we need a better approach for abstracting legacy assets to drive agility, an architectural approach freed from middleware and laser focused on the business agility drivers from the digital transformation initiative.

Even if you think you can avoid time bomb #1, however, you must also navigate your way past time bomb #2: Realizing you have to do something about the legacy mess, but thinking there's a shortcut. Examples of such shortcuts: migrating legacy apps to the Cloud, feeding existing data into Hadoop without a strategy for collecting new information, or perhaps building mobile app interfaces onto aging Web apps that were never designed to support them. True, you may be able to get any of these examples to work, but you'll have missed the point of digital transformation initiatives: they're not about the digital, they're about the transformation. After all, your entire legacy IT shop is already digital. Transformation requires entirely new approaches, not shortcuts.

The Intellyx Take
Perhaps you're not convinced by my scintillating, scoundrel-infused diatribe. Your digital transformation initiative is doing just fine on its own, thank you very much, while IT keeps the legacy lights on, and never the twain shall meet. Sorry to shiver your timbers, but you're not alone in your market. Your competition also struggles with their legacy burden, and the spoils will go to those enterprises who successfully deal with their legacy as part of their digital transformation. If you don't get this right, then your competition will, and no amount of derring-do will save your digital transformation initiative then.

The good news for some organizations is that if you have been successful with SOA you're ahead of the game (and I know there are a few of you out there who actually got SOA to work). But regardless of whether SOA paid off for you or not, to meet your strategic goals with your digital transformation initiative, you must follow a well-architected approach that both understands and connects the business drivers for digital transformation to specific, tactical legacy initiatives.

Remember, transformation drivers are always business agility drivers, which means Agile Architecture is absolutely essential to digital transformation success: an iterative, dynamic approach that focuses on solving problems instead of paperwork, an approach that incorporates regular input from stakeholders - in other words, architecture that is inherently Agile. Going rogue may be fun, but it's high time for your CDO and CIO to work together - or even be the same person. Errol Flynn would be proud.

Image credit: Pascal

More Stories By Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg is a leading IT industry analyst, Forbes contributor, keynote speaker, and globally recognized expert on multiple disruptive trends in enterprise technology and digital transformation. He is ranked #5 on Onalytica’s list of top Digital Transformation influencers for 2018 and #15 on Jax’s list of top DevOps influencers for 2017, the only person to appear on both lists.

As founder and president of Agile Digital Transformation analyst firm Intellyx, he advises, writes, and speaks on a diverse set of topics, including digital transformation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, devops, big data/analytics, cybersecurity, blockchain/bitcoin/cryptocurrency, no-code/low-code platforms and tools, organizational transformation, internet of things, enterprise architecture, SD-WAN/SDX, mainframes, hybrid IT, and legacy transformation, among other topics.

Mr. Bloomberg’s articles in Forbes are often viewed by more than 100,000 readers. During his career, he has published over 1,200 articles (over 200 for Forbes alone), spoken at over 400 conferences and webinars, and he has been quoted in the press and blogosphere over 2,000 times.

Mr. Bloomberg is the author or coauthor of four books: The Agile Architecture Revolution (Wiley, 2013), Service Orient or Be Doomed! How Service Orientation Will Change Your Business (Wiley, 2006), XML and Web Services Unleashed (SAMS Publishing, 2002), and Web Page Scripting Techniques (Hayden Books, 1996). His next book, Agile Digital Transformation, is due within the next year.

At SOA-focused industry analyst firm ZapThink from 2001 to 2013, Mr. Bloomberg created and delivered the Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) course and associated credential, certifying over 1,700 professionals worldwide. He is one of the original Managing Partners of ZapThink LLC, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011.

Prior to ZapThink, Mr. Bloomberg built a diverse background in eBusiness technology management and industry analysis, including serving as a senior analyst in IDC’s eBusiness Advisory group, as well as holding eBusiness management positions at USWeb/CKS (later marchFIRST) and WaveBend Solutions (now Hitachi Consulting), and several software and web development positions.

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