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Three birds, one stone: Legacy systems, millennials and shadow IT

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Guest post: Richard Acreman is a Partner at WM Reply, a company dedicated to building world-class intranets and business solutions with Microsoft Technology. Their mission is to build the world’s best Microsoft SharePoint and Office 365 solutions to help organisations overcome business challenges.

Calling millennials a “challenge” might seem harsh, and lumping them in with legacy systems along with corporate woes seems even worse. Arguably it is, but the million and one published articles on the struggles of integrating millennials into the workplace aren’t all unfounded. There are different forces at play as one generation passes the baton to the next; acknowledging them is useful, particularly as millennials will constitute half the workforce by next New Year.

Millennials, legacy systems, and shadow IT are three of the most complained about, unsolved puzzles of this decade, all with interesting commonalities; thinking of them together is convenient, though seemingly abstract initially.

First, a quick overview of the challenges:

Millennials

Famous as a generation of digital natives, millennials are technology masters. They are marked by the ability to outsource everyday tasks via mobile apps and software-as-a-service, to carve out increasingly valuable, sophisticated leisure time, and pursue interests unaffordable or un-invented two decades earlier.

This results in (according to stereotypes), short attention spans, an insatiable appetite for meaning, and a smug awareness of their ability to use their skills to greater efficiency. For companies, this translates to impatience for long term objectives, an unwillingness to see the bigger picture, a distaste for hierarchy, and itchy feet – or so say their detractors.

Legacy systems

Legacy systems are a less ambiguous office demon, reportedly holding back as much as 90% of businesses, yet they remain a complex challenge for IT teams to tackle. The problem won first place in a recent survey of IT leaders looking at obstacles to digital reform. A further complicating factor is that half the workforce will know their way comfortably around the old systems, meanwhile the other half will be continually infuriated by the lack of efficiency and the error prone processes rooted in it. Yet both halves may be afraid of serious change.

Shadow IT

The tangled web of unapproved programmes and devices sitting just outside of the – often legacy – infrastructure is another problem – one that made up 35% of corporate IT spend last year. On the one hand, this shadow IT infrastructure can be more versatile and user friendly, but it brings immense security risks, appalling interoperability, and a lack of strategic oversight. Calling it an infrastructure at all is probably going too far.

On cloud nine

Despite being three of the most talked about residents on the “urgently in need of attention” list, and despite their diversity, all three could be tackled with one solution. The commonality between them is they have the same answer, stemming from cloud technologies.

Taken one at a time, here’s a hypothetical cure to each corporate ailment as it’s laid out above:

Millennial malady

In diverse, often spread out workplaces, giving millennial employees meaning and motivation means providing the tools to connect with like-minded others, to communicate across divisional and hierarchical barriers, and to shake off the constraints of slow communication formats like email. Furthermore, it means engaging with the strong, active culture in place.

To do all of that, companies must show employees how to connect with their history, play a part in shaping future ambitions – or at least how they are delivered – and understand who their leaders are and why the efforts they make each day are intrinsic to everyone’s success.

Instant communication tools centred around audio visual formats like video calling, and conversational written forms like instant messaging, make a huge difference – especially when linked to efficient cloud-based collaboration tools that bring people together while solving problems. With the right tools, everyone can feel like anyone’s desk buddy.

Legacy lurgy

Fixing legacy systems in the traditional way can involve immense expenditure, disruption to the workforce, and drawn out interruption of “business as usual”, things unacceptable to most stakeholders. This results in legacy systems remaining in limbo until the situation is so desperate there’s no longer a choice.

In reality, however, a lot of day-to-day business systems can be relatively easily and cost effectively moved to the cloud, particularly where the cloud set-up is hybrid, and essential data is left on the systems already in place, but user experience and accessibility can be via an online front end. Without compromising security, a large percentage of the legacy headache can be quickly removed. Engaging with a wide array of systems can also be made straightforward by building them into the side of a cloud based internal communications infrastructure that employees use for day to day co-ordination and collaboration. Putting everything in one place creates uniformity across the organisation, reducing the amount of serious change for employees.

Shadow sickness

There are two main reasons that Shadow IT proliferates. Firstly, it’s more familiar, therefore easier to use. It usually originates in the consumer world and employees know it, already having it on their personal devices. Secondly, it has better user experience; its advocates would say things like “it makes more sense”, “it’s more efficient”, or “I like it because it works how I work”.

Actually, that distracts from the real problem. Systems built for the consumer world seem better because they’re newer; they’re recently off the shelf, or recently updated. Consumer tech companies push updates on their customers multiple times a year, while corporate controlled IT tends to be more cautious. Therefore, we aren’t comparing apples with apples. Comparing brand-new consumer solutions with years old corporate tools will always see the old coming off worse.

However, when comparing up to date versions of each solution, the corporate option, designed to encourage compatibility, interoperability, and collaboration is nearly always better, more intuitive, and almost as pretty. Putting the solution in the cloud means easy, regular, micro updates, keeping the corporate tech at the forefront, making comparisons with consumer-side shadow alternatives laughable. At the same time, these flexible offerings help install a culture of steady, incremental change, taking away the fear of new things and ensuring no lagging behind.

A change in the weather

Each of the answers to the challenges above centre around cloud based internal company IT infrastructure. Diverse, multifaceted products like Office 365, Yammer, and SharePoint can go a long way to fixing the problems that exist and providing a new, flexible platform that not only solves current problems, but insures against their return in the future.

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