How to modernise challenging legacy systems

Speaking with CSW, Roz Barrance, head of business development for the UK civil division of Leidos, explains how collaboration will be key to delivering digital transformation


What are the biggest issues caused by legacy systems currently running?

Many older systems contain workarounds and temporary solutions that can add significant layers of complexity to operations. Years of changing legislation and policy requirements have built up the complexity of these systems, which is why it is so difficult to move away from them.

There is a wider view that legacy systems pose a challenge in allowing organisations/government to move forward with digital transformation. These systems were often developed when people, processes and technology were different. We need to understand that, and not allow it to become a constraint.

There’s no doubt that some systems struggle to keep pace with required changes, becoming less fit for purpose and customer expectation — something my colleagues call ‘fossilisation’. Processes need to be agile, and change to demand the underlying technology can hinder that requirement.

Legacy systems can hold us back from realising the opportunities that new technologies offer in transforming public services for the digital citizens of today and tomorrow. The benefits of digital transformation come from reimagining the user experience and business processes in an information-rich and dynamically changing world.

What are the first steps to modernise legacy systems?

One of the key success factors lies in aligning business transformation with IT and any associated data transformation. We look at threads — business processes from end to end — then minimise cross-coupling between those processes. For each thread we look at the business, digital and data transformations, allowing us to reimagine business processes in a digital world and address technology challenges in parallel.

This approach was recognised by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee. Its report, published in December last year, said: “Departments have failed to understand the difference between improving what currently exists and real digital transformation, meaning that they have missed opportunities to move to modern, efficient ways of working.”

The committee recommended the introduction of a structured way to decide whether changes represent incremental improvements to existing systems or transformation redesign. Building on this, I was pleased to see avoiding and remediating legacy IT as a cross-cutting priority in the very recently released DDAT playbook with a supporting guidance note, building on commitments made last year in the Declaration on Government Reform.

How should organisations involve their staff?

As an example, Leidos runs the £6.7bn, 13-year Ministry of Defence Logistics Commodities and Services Transformation programme. The key to its complex initial transformation was to recognise the reality of both the heritage and the modern world to ensure the digital and business transformation took place hand in hand.

We use an ‘operationally led, digitally enabled’ approach to avoid issues we’ve seen in other programmes where the front-end gets re-engineered and looks great, but the legacy systems at the back end aren’t delivering the overall transformation needed.

The only way you are ever going to do this is by collaborating with both technical and frontline staff, including those working on today’s systems, and those designing what tomorrow’s will look like. People and their skills are needed to run the business while being critical in delivering change. They understand the existing data, how environments exist and how they are connected, and the business rules and processes that sit behind that.

What can be done to help organisations undertake digital transformation?

The government is taking steps to deliver new digital training for civil servants. We’re investing in this through the Leidos TechX Academy, developed in collaboration with our engineering communities, talent and business development teams. It provides a custom set of content to upskill our engineers in line with our mission and strategy, and more importantly, that of our customers. It covers data, cloud, systems engineering, cyber and software.

The benefits are a more engaged workforce that is ready to collaborate with our customers to deliver solutions to complex challenges. We plan to share TechX Academy with our customers.

Data migration is often a significant element of this kind of project. How can organisations do this well?

In complex environments, change isn’t going to happen overnight. There are likely to be multiple phases, meaning data management will be crucial to ensure traceability, understanding of inputs, dependencies and outputs. Data is not an IT issue, it is everyone’s issue.

As you say, data migration is often a significant element of this kind of project, but you can take significant steps in the interim and unleash value from data where it is. Moving it doesn’t always need to be the first step. A key benefit of digital transformation is better data use, through improved data analytics and business intelligence. If data being imported is not fit for purpose this will quickly reduce your ROI.

Strong data governance between IT and the business will be vital, recognising where you are coming from, where you are going to and, crucially, all the stages in between.

Legacy systems tend to keep live until a more modern version is ready to take over. How can organisations best cope with running both?

Process automation can help to reduce the overhead of that period and improve data management activities, such as by minimising human error and increasing velocity. Many organisations have these challenges, so sharing knowledge of how you cope with these periods can help.

The Public Accounts Committee picked up on how digital programmes often fail to set up a single programme office to support the programme director in aligning all aspects of work throughout the programme. Having that end-to-end view is key, and some of these programmes can run over several years, making consistency critical to their success.

Can organisations avoid having to undergo major projects of this kind through ongoing work?

To an extent yes. Change can be delivered iteratively – and we are getting better at doing that. But it’s important to learn lessons from what has been done, and wherever possible try to avoid creating the legacy systems of the future.

It’s also important to reflect on the impact of the pandemic and the level of disruption to public sector services. There have been real shifts towards digitisation and moving operations to cloud environments.

These are not easy challenges to address and there are reasons why these systems remain in operation. Collaboration will be key to delivering system modernisation and digital transformation, between the public and private sector, larger organisations and SMEs, citizens and their digital identities, and silos of data. It’s about bringing things together to realise the benefits for all of us.

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