Temporary IT, or, Where Does Technology Go When It Retires?

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25 February 2010
I recently reviewed an IT project that had been submitted for an award, only to learn that between the time of the submission and the time of the judging, the IT project in question had been "retired." The context forced me to ask whether such a project could still be considered award-worthy, but the more general question is whether a retired system can be called a success. Some IT projects are destined for retirement the day they are conceived. They are the temporary measures put in place to achieve a certain minimum level of functionality "until." Until the entire core system is replaced. Until a vendor offering provides the function in their next upgrade. Until the technology available in the marketplace can duplicate this custom code. Until someone comes up with a better/cheaper/faster way of doing it. These projects live short, meaningful lives. They go into production quickly, do their job, and then gracefully make an exit six months, a year, or two years later when the permanent solution is ready. Such projects include things like a custom agent portal that is eventually eclipsed by a full policy administration replacement. Or a simple rating calculator that is maintained outside the legacy system and used solely to provide real-time quotes to agents until the legacy system has been modernized. Or hard-wired integration between a billing and claims solution maintained while both systems are being upgraded. These projects are a success not despite the fact that they are eventually retired, but because they are eventually retired. They have done their job and helped the organization advance to the next stage. In fact, the true disaster is when a tech initiative that was always meant to be a temporary solution evolves into a critical system that lives for ten years, cobbled together like Frankenstein's IT, preventing the company from moving on to a better, more modern solution. This happens more often than we'd like, and so even projects with short lifespans need to be taken seriously. The truth is ALL technology is temporary technology. Every system will eventually be replaced by the next system. And any system--no matter how modern and "permanent" it is upon implementation--will become legacy technology if it is not constantly kept up to date. We can learn from these temporary IT projects. Smart organizations approach such initiatives warily, making sure that it will be easy to turn them off when it is time to move on. So should be the case with every project. Smart organizations consider how employees will be impacted when a temporary IT project is no longer available. So should be the case with every project. Smart organizations have a next step in mind when they start a temporary IT project. So should be the case with every project. If insurers treat every IT initiative like it is a temporary one then insurers will be less likely to end up with irreplaceable legacy systems. Part of IT planning, even for major systems that have long life spans, is to consider how the system will be kept up-to-date and how it will eventually be retired.

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