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How continuous app modernization delivers remote access at scale

Christopher Null Freelance writer

Remote access has been a big motivator for digital transformation, and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that trend for core business applications. As organizations the world over have been forced to implement work-from-home arrangements for tens of thousands of people, they've had to reckon with making irreplaceable business systems accessible to their newly distributed workforces—and do it at scale and securely.

Providing this kind of access is a huge task with a high risk of failure. Adding to the pandemic-fueled urgency is increased pressure within organizations to show value quickly, said Micro Focus product marketing director Ed Airey.  "I just don't think there's the patience that was had at one point in time where they would wait for much longer projects."

Faced with these demands, many organizations are opting to transform their core applications through incremental improvements rather than taking a rip-and-replace approach. To that end, a new Micro Focus survey showed that 63% of respondents chose to improve their COBOL systems in 2020.

That decision is supported by research from the Standish Group. The report, "Endless Modernization: How Infinite Flow Keeps Software Fresh," shows that a continuous modernization strategy often produces better results than do project-based approaches. Infinite Flow is the Standish Group's model of incremental improvements.

You don't have months to show business value; "you only have weeks, so you have to deliver right away," said Hans Mulder, one of the report's authors.

"There's an end to the undertaking of projects. It's becoming more like anti-projects. And since the core systems are crucial, organizations have to have ways in which they can improve systems on a daily basis."
Hans Mulder

Overall, there is agreement that continuous modernization minimizes risk, increases value, and achieves higher success rates. It's becoming a critical engine for digital transformation. Here's are key lessons from the report.

Continuous modernization suits core applications

It's common for organizations to approach modernizing mission-critical application software as one big project with a beginning and an end. But the scale of these projects often becomes unmanageable, resulting in them being aborted or abandoned. Even when a project is completed, the requirements may have changed by the time it's delivered, due to the rapid speed of today's business.

Conversely, data shows that Flow-like micro-projects should succeed 80% to 90% of the time, according to report co-author Jim Johnson. And because micro-projects incrementally deliver new features and functions, it's easier for end users to adapt to and provide feedback on the changes.

According to the study, Infinite Flow-style daily delivery strategies can increase customer satisfaction to about 80%.

The Micro Focus survey also found that this method of modernization is driving digital transformation. It reported that 70% of enterprises prefer a modernization approach for implementing strategic change over replacing or retiring key COBOL applications, because it "continues to offer a low-risk and effective means of transforming IT to support digital business initiatives."

Continuous modernization is especially popular with government, educational, and financial institutions, where technological complexity, compliance requirements, and an ingrained culture make large, one-off projects particularly challenging. Looking at how they can transform their core business systems to provide remote access, these organizations are challenging the status quo around how projects are managed and delivered.

"What we've seen within our customer base are folks looking for faster ways to deliver value back to the business. They're looking for ways that take out the cost and the risk, because every project, every IT initiative now, is under scrutiny for obvious reasons—budget, people, time."
Ed Airey

Getting into the Flow

Teams are the building blocks of Infinite Flow modernization, and the idea, according to Johnson, is to assign a Flow team to a specific app or embed one in a particular department. The goal is for these teams to build relationships with the people using the application, absorb their user experiences, and determine how to improve and keep the application relevant over time.

This is the approach the city of Amsterdam took when it was forced to shift 30,000 employees to remote work at the beginning of pandemic lockdowns last year, Standish Group's Mulder said. It divided its 180 IT workers among its 30 or so government departments so that each had its own Flow team, directed by executives acting as each micro-project's sponsor.

The sponsor can "tap in and get the work that they need to be done to run their department" with the strategic vision of the Amsterdam government, which is designed so any citizen can get any information they need from the city without requiring a lot of work, Standish Group's Johnson said 

Any employee can do the work they need to, Johnson said. Most of the people who work for the city now, except the people doing things such as sweeping the streets and repairing the traffic lights, are remote.

While a large-scale transformation such as this might seem cost-prohibitive, Johnson said Flow-style modernization actually reduces budgets and increases output. The bigger challenge, he said, is getting around the sacred cows and inertia within a given organization.

The organization has its strategy, but every day somebody is working on implementing solutions for that strategy tactically.

"When we talk about Flow, we're talking about a culture change that puts more focus on getting organizations to think strategically, but to act tactically."
Jim Johnson

Welcome transformation

At this point, organizations must embrace change. Given that, Mulder believes it comes down to the amount of complexity an organization can master at once. "If you have a project of Є540 million, you can't master this—it's too huge," he said. "You have to be able to say, 'What can we do on a daily basis?' Because that's actually the thing you can steer."

It's clear that organizations are still finding their core applications integral to how they operate their businesses, and retiring or replacing them is unthinkable. Flow-like modernization is proving to be a fast, flexible way to retune them for remote access and keep them vital as IT ecosystems evolve.

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