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To go digital at speed you must rip and replace

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright April 14, 2015
It no longer makes any sense to demonize rip-and-replace in IT. The pace of digital change is so rapid that it's the only way to evolve fast enough to survive

Ripping out bathroom tiles © Gina Sanders -
The notion of 'rip and replace' — installing all-new systems in place of whatever went before — has come to be regarded as a dangerous exercise in the enterprise IT world. Most people instinctively recoil at the very idea, and suppliers have become careful to avoid any hint that they would ever propose anything of the kind.

This conventional wisdom has gone unchallenged for so long, no one has noticed that it no longer makes any sense whatsoever. Enterprise IT is one of the few fields of endeavour where preserving as much as possible of the past is seen as a virtue. But this attachment to past investments is holding enterprises back from where they need to be to compete as the world goes digital.

Unicorns vs Dinosaurs

If you don't rip-and-replace your own systems then sooner or later a competitor will come in and make your entire business obsolete. Dave McClure this week posted a brutally direct take on this:

Most public companies have not taken to heart how absolutely mission-critical software technology & internet marketing have become to business competitiveness. Thus, every Dinosaur Company is extremely vulnerable to a Startup Unicorn eating their lunch.

The pace of change in many industries is now so fast that there's no time for tinkering around the edges. Many of the enterprises I speak to that are adopting cloud applications are still doing it far too slowly and with too much reverence for how things have been done in the past.

It is not only IT pushing back against disruptive change. In most cases IT also lacks the courage to insist that business colleagues radically revise their existing ways of working to harness the real power of digital technology and do things in a vastly more efficient and responsive manner.

Peter Coffee put this succinctly in a recent Salesforce partner post on diginomica that cautioned Don’t be just a little bit digital:

Doing the same old things with digital technology is probably doing the wrong things, and may not even do them better.

Change avoidance

Yet I constantly find myself talking to enterprise decision-makers who are patiently implementing cloud applications and digital processes as carefully as possible so as not to disrupt their business colleagues. It's change avoidance masquerading as change management. Whereas what the business needs is a decisive kick up the backside to wake it out of its complacent slumber.

Very few other disciplines behave like this. Imagine how astonished you'd be if, on calling in a builder to renovate your bathroom at home, the would-be contractor started suggesting you keep as much of the existing setup as possible, despite the extra cost and work required to patch around it. Unless you live in a conservation area where there's special value in preserving the past, you wouldn't be happy with this approach. You'd want all the old stuff ripped out and replaced with spanking brand new kit.

The reason rip-and-replace has long been considered harmful in the enterprise IT world is due to harrowing experiences during the client-server era. Vendors used to over-promise the capabilities of their products, organizations would invest large sums in implementing the new kit, and then switch over in a single 'big bang' moment, only to be left high and dry when the new system failed to work as expected — and on some disastrous occasions, not at all.

Thus a preference emerged for a less disruptive, more gradualist approach to technology change. This made sense as a response to the shortcomings of the highly customised, on-premise, client-server systems of the time. But this ingrained habit is now a hangover from an era when the prevailing technology was very different from what is available today.

Replace, then rip

The advent of cloud computing has made rip-and-replace a far less risky strategy than it used to be. Because the systems are delivered from the cloud rather than installed on the customer's own premises, enterprises no longer have to invest time and expense in a long-winded technology implementation before getting started. They can test out the capabilities of the system with a cohort of advance pilot users before rolling it out more widely at a controlled pace.

Of course unforeseen hitches do sometimes occur, but they're much easier to resolve due to the easy adaptability of a true cloud platform. And if things do go badly wrong, there's always the option of falling back to the previous system as a last resort.

Its not so much rip-and-replace with no way back as replace, then rip.

But be careful to make sure that the new processes you're putting in truly realize the full potential of digital technology. We are entering an era of frictionless enterprise, when information and actions are accessed and executed on-demand and can adapt to constant change in a collaborative, networked economy.

We're not talking about converting paper-based processes into digital equivalents. If you're not harnessing cloud applications to fundamentally transform the way your business operates, you're never going to realize the potential of today's connected digital technologies. Organizations that aren't prepared to rip out huge swathes of established processes deny themselves the leap ahead into the digital era that is essential for their survival.

Disclosure: Salesforce is a diginomica premier partner.

Image credits: Ripping out bathroom tiles © Gina Sanders -

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