This article is Part 8 in our Information Systems series.
Part 8: Better Methods At Work (current)
Better Methods at Work
The methods we’ve discussed prove valuable in meeting a wide variety of information systems challenges. Here are some examples.
An independent power producer acquired another producer, adding plants, expanding market coverage, and quadrupling the workload of power scheduling – a process at the heart of the business. With the application and tools in use, schedulers couldn’t handle the larger workload in time to meet the daily market deadline. Rather than buying an application to address that one problem, the company invested in rapid (60 days) development of a new system that would also serve the changing needs of other scheduling, trading, and analysis activities. Because they could not anticipate all the potential uses, the developers created not a fixed application, but a set of functional capabilities with a common and intelligent underlying architecture. “Intelligent” because it keeps all data exposed to other applications, and it generates notifications to keep everyone up-to-date on changes to the system. The application’s functionality has since changed and expanded with ease.
Free the data.
An online marketing analytics company was founded by one of the top data modeling scientists in the U.S. Its core system was built using the best technologies of only a few years ago; however, with the explosion of demand for analytics and the rapid advance of computerized analytical methods, the system couldn’t keep up. Rebuilding it would have constrained the company’s growth. Instead, the company installed a Grapevine “adapter” into the existing system to continuously replicate its data in one of today’s most advanced and high capacity database managers. There the data scientists were able to develop new analytic functionality, including features they thought were still a year down the road. The old system continued to run and support customers as usual. And the company had the start of a new architecture for future change. Many organizations have problems extracting data from legacy applications and databases, but few with the scale and urgency of this one.
Franchise the applications.
A restaurateur with a successful regional chain wanted to expand by franchising. The company’s competitive advantage lay in custom restaurant software for operational and financial management, a system that had been refined over a decade. To be deployed to franchisees as a SaaS offering, the functionality had to be rebuilt with newer technology. The application also had to be flexible enough to interface with dozens of popular point-of-sale systems, to enable mobile access for employees and managers alike, and to scale as franchises grew. The application was rebuilt in six months using third-way methods and a Grapevine architecture. It is easily provisioned to franchisees and, just as importantly, serves as a platform for continuous improvement, just as the original local system did.
Surround the legacy.
Most companies will initially use these new technologies and methods to address the problems posed by inflexible legacy applications. There are several ways to “surround” an older system, letting it continue to run while putting its components to better use. Data can be extracted automatically and reformatted for decisions or analytics, dramatically reducing the manual effort spent generating reports. A new “skin” can be put on a legacy application to support simplified user interfaces or mobile access. New functionality can be developed in parallel then integrated as extensions of the application. Over time, that surrounding functionality can collectively replace old applications and their outdated (and often proprietary) technology.
Where should your company begin, or which application should it tackle next? Be sure to take two perspectives:
- What key application has fallen far behind what the business needs in terms of functionality? What application has become unmaintainable because its technology is old and the skills to maintain it are scarce? What application presents the most difficulty each time the software vendor releases an upgrade?
- What application will need to be more flexible in the future because it serves a very dynamic business need? What application has “buried assets” of great potential value to the platform at large? What application will unleash value by being “mobilized” to portable devices and remote users?