Not that old chestnut! Overcoming tensions between Business and IT

Francis Carden,

In oldish English, “Not that old chestnut!” means, “Have I got to listen to this story again?!”

The answer’s yes, because this time ‘that old chestnut’ is different…and may soon be a thing of the past.

I have written and spoken a lot over the last 30+ years on the subject of IT and business alignment. It’s been the same story, told over and over: the two groups often just don’t get along. I’ve seen the two sides to this equation many times and have empathy for each. Everyone’s heart is in the right place, but the issues facing each side are very different.

Fortunately, things are starting to change, and I passionately believe we‘re entering a new era, not only in which business and IT get along, but in which they are also aligned with the same goals and enjoy shared empathy for each other.

The reasons for this history of misalignment are many but really boil down to expectations about time. Business units want to react fast (to market demands, competition, targets, operation cost drivers). IT, on the other hand, have to keep the lights on (maintaining legacy technology, security, governance, integration maintenance, and development capacity). Both sides are consistently constrained by budgets, while still being asked to respond to different and changing priorities throughout the year. Business units like to think in the now (weeks, months). IT has to think in years (and sometimes decades) and is frequently hobbled by technical decisions of the past.

I heard from one enterprise a couple of years ago that 94% of their IT budget and resources go toward just keeping the lights on. It is no wonder IT and business are out of alignment. After forty years, IT has a lot of old chestnuts to worry about.

Part One: The story behind legacy debt with coding

The fundamentals of business processes computerization have barely changed over the past forty years: design, write code, build infrastructure, deploy. When writing business applications, both IT and business start-out with the very best intentions, and even alignment. But then projects over-run, budgets are squeezed, and priorities change. Ultimately, there is a rush to get something out the door that is “good enough.”

Our best programmers get bored. They pass hand-me-down spaghetti code to more junior or new-to-the-project programmers, who in turn have to patch and customize in order to reach more and more urgent “must go-live” dates!

Sacrifices are continually made across the board. What finally makes it to live may be “good enough,” but more often falls well short of the original intention. Post-live, applications are filed into a large virtual “library” along with a myriad of other legacy systems to be supported.

This “legacy” baseline then ages-on-the-vine over time even as business units continuously ask for further customizations to keep up with their needs. Legacy systems and the code behind them get pulled from the library, copied and customized (maybe outsourced), over and over again. (We’ve actually seen companies with 50+ customized copies of the “same” core application, modified for different parts of the business and regions.) Now it’s up to IT to support hundreds or thousands of legacy systems, created with mountains of complex code. What this amounts to is growing “legacy debt” that comes at a growing annual cost. And let’s not get started on why many of these systems lack documentation, in the code side, or from the process side.

“Not that old chestnut!” you say. Yes, thousands of articles have been written about tensions between business and IT. And with good reason. We’ve been playing a 40 year old blame game.

Part two: A new era, with no coding

So what’s different now?

We don’t need to write applications the old way anymore. We are long gone from the many constraints of the past that drove the “legacy” in legacy systems. Gone are the slow server systems supported by washing machine speed disk drives. Gone are ties to a specific hardware vendor or being locked-in to a chosen database model. Gone are the constraints of limited and costly memory driving huge limitations in delivering responsive business outcomes. Gone are the ties to large desktop PC’s, with similar memory and disk needs. Gone are the constraints of tiny data limits moving over miles of fat cabling.

The computer era has done a complete 180° and so we can finally stop building applications as if it’s the same. Freed from the limits of what our technology can do, we no longer need to write mountains of code with embedded business logic rules that are costly to change. By eliminating the technical barriers to IT agility, we eliminate the wedge between what IT can do, and what business needs.

Businesses can now literally create applications, in as little as a few days or a few weeks, to match their business needs, delivering the outcomes they are trying to achieve for their customers. Notice I didn’t use the words “write” applications.” There is no longer a need to “write” applications. Businesses are building new digital business processes, one “micro-journey” at a time, whether the outcome is to open a new account, change a subscription plan, issue a quote, offer a new product, or almost anything else. These Micro-journeys are amazingly built without any code. Even powerful state-of-the-art user interfaces are built automatically to work on any device, across all channels, with business further tweaking to match their preferred designs.

Thanks to low-code/no-code application development, gone is the need for millions of lines of customized code, the cause behind most legacy debt. There is no need to hard code anything anymore. Using the Pega brain, unique business conditions and variations are stored once, as visual rules. If you ever need to change anything at this core, one change replicates itself everywhere, automatically, in every application, UI, database and API call. This is how software should always have been built – and now it can be.

Importantly, the new low-code era is not one in which IT takes a back seat. To the contrary, IT is critical to this is real-time collaboration with business. They own the platform, enabling business to build and configure these applications quickly, with fast and secure go-lives, and without sacrificing anything that’s crucial to the enterprise. IT are able to almost instant-on a fully governed, secure and open infrastructure, in the cloud or on-premise, that no longer constrains business needs.

By eliminating technical barriers that have traditionally prevented IT from delivering with the agility that business demands, low-code means that the old chestnut that is the tension between business and IT may soon be a thing of the past.

About the Author

Francis Carden, Pega’s VP of digital automation and robotics, is a columnist, speaker, and industry expert on the subject of automation and digital transformation.