Why we need a technological overhaul, not a rebuild

Priorities in digital transformation must rely on technology renewal, as the industry is putting a very strong focus on the shiny and the new.

Andy Lethbridge at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence explains why it is often better to build on what is already in place, looking at technology renewal rather than new digital innovation.

Digital transformation has become an overused term – a silver bullet to make things better and justify business cases. But my experience tells me that it often comes at an avoidable cost.

The irony is that digital transformation – the shiny and new – is seen as an easier path than evolution should not be lost on anyone. Especially in central government, history tells us that new is not always better.

The new normal

New is always exciting and fun, the moment of genesis is always so appealing. But it always involves more bribes, more money and more energy than taking an existing foundation and evolving. Of course, the cloud and new emerging technologies like serverless and quantum will require some more fundamental changes, but I’m not talking about systems built in the 90s or 00s – you know, the ones where people have to buy spare parts from eBay to keep them.

What I’m referring to is those systems that are designed and engineered well, still do what they’re intended to do, but perhaps suffer from technical debt that makes them a bit clunky. I’m talking about systems that have this technical debt because they’ve never been given the opportunity to fix issues since they’ve never been prioritized. Or, as is more often the case, the investment is in building the new system of the future – and often not learning the lessons of the past through technology renewal and restoration.

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Other reasons to build new ones are often rooted in a lack of knowledge and understanding, increasingly, the uncertainty of new people in an organization coupled with the desire to create a legacy, the ability to say, ‘look what we built’, instead of ‘Look what we fixed’. It takes a different kind of person to get better.

Additionally, building something new gives the impression that someone has more control over what you’ve built. You can pretend you know it inside and out because you’ve been there from the beginning. With greenfield builds it is often easy to convince yourself that this is the case, however, my experiences suggest otherwise; lack of detailed understanding of skills remains low.

More with less

The public sector has spent a fortune during the pandemic, some of it spent perhaps less than prudently. However, one thing is for sure, it is critical to make the most of good investments; even more so with the imperative to save money as part of the post-pandemic economic recovery. Doing more with what we have and asking ourselves really hard questions about whether it’s better to build or fix will enable the country to spend less while doing more.

So how can tech teams extrapolate maximum value from investments before we convince those with budget controls that building something new and shiny is the right thing to do?

A fundamental, but often overlooked, step is to understand what capability exists and what capability is needed for technology renewal. Do not pay attention to this process as it is the most important. Engage with suppliers if they have built capabilities; assume nothing and put preconceived ideas and unconscious biases to one side. Only by doing this can you truly examine it as it is and then explore options for evolution. I want to really explore them – don’t think they’re too hard and base decisions on personal bias. Look for examples where evolution has been successful, and also look at the lessons of the past. Somewhat disappointingly, the government has a rich tapestry of IT and transformation failures to learn from – in the current economic climate, it is vital not to repeat the mistakes that have already been made.

The evaluation phase is also critical. It’s easy to get fixated on one solution and not do due diligence on all the available options. Of course, if the approach to development remains too risky, then don’t hold yourself hostage to wealth either; I am not suggesting that we become as dogmatic about evolution as we currently are about transformation – balance is needed.

Finally, evolve. To provide complete clarity on this approach, I want to focus on being data- and user-centric, not system-centric. Technology has never been the end in itself; it has always been a means to an end. This got lost in translation somewhere along the way and so for too long, the focus has been on the technology and the system.

Market issues

Finally, the public sector should seek to use open standards as much as possible and promote interoperability. There are so many things now that don’t tie you to monolithic, single-source procurement. But rest assured, the market will tell you again and again that this is what you need.

Ultimately, it’s important not to go into the market before you know what you want and not let people create jobs for themselves. If you create an environment for a large trade contract – well, you can see the self-fulfilling prophecy. Keep this in your pocket, often the smartest choice is to renovate rather than rebuild.

This piece was provided by Andy Lethbridge, Head of Consulting, Central Government, at BAE Systems Digital Intelligence.

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