As a consultant, I don’t often get to enjoy the fruits of a successful project. I get a good handshake and a nice project wrap-up party. After that, I usually move on to the next client, often to solve the same problems, with some new wrinkles, all over again. I do like to stay in contact with several clients and over the years, there is one challenge that they are rarely prepared to solve -- obsolescence.
The Price of Success
Let’s take your generic enterprise content management system -- this is CMSWire after all. Five years ago, you sat down, defined your content types, defined the content life-cycles and built out the core business processes.
Over the years, new types were added and new processes were implemented, but on the whole, it has been a reliable system.
On top of that, you have had some luck. The original software vendor has not been bought by a company looking to move customers to a different product or aiming to milk the software maintenance. Upgrades have been implemented on a fairly regular basis and they haven’t been nightmarish.
Now the system’s age is showing. Over time, meaningful new releases have become further apart. Meanwhile, there has been a gradual change in your requirements that didn’t track directly with the vendor’s enhancements. Some examples that I’ve seen the past few years include:
- Progressing from managing content to capturing the content.
- Supporting significantly more users in the organization over a wider area.
- Sharing information with external partners.
These are all problems. All in all, it is a pretty pickle. There are two basic approaches you can take to attacking this problem.
Just Start Over
This always has lots of appeal at first blush. A fresh start with new technology can be very exciting. The techies love to play with the latest technology and management can point to the shiny new toy that they brought into this world to solve the problem.
Of course it is never that simple. Remove from consideration all of the content that may have to be migrated and just look at the embedded business rules.
There is a lot of business knowledge tied up in older systems. Outside consultants/experts may come look at an older system and start pointing to how things can be better if they only use their products instead.
Theoretically, their assertions may be correct. The issue is that you have to make things dramatically better for the users to accept the new solution. Do not underestimate the ever-present danger of a key feature not being available in the new system. What you may view as something that needs to be listed as a key requirement, the user may just assume that feature is a given and not even mention it. That lasts until the user realizes it isn’t in the new system.
Let’s consider the enhancement route.
An alternative to a full replacement is acquiring new technology that can enhance and supplement the current system's capabilities. This can be as straightforward as adding a new search engine, to something more obscure as compression software for content.
A common challenge in larger organizations is budgetary politics. Management may see the problem and wonder why the existing system can’t do what they deem to be core features of an Enterprise CMS. Management tends to react in one of three ways:
- Decide to live with it. Why spend any more money? The system has been good enough for years. Why not a little longer?
- Replace it. Take on the previously discussed challenges and bring in a new vendor that does it all.
- Go with the Golf Solution.
Let me explain that last one. The Golf Solution happens when someone in management is socializing with someone and they share, at a very high level, the basic problem. The response they hear is: “Oh, my company can fix that.”
This leads to an actual meeting where it is agreed that the suggested solution is the answer to the problem. Shortly after that, the actual system team is brought into the discussion.
Now comes the tricky part. The components being proposed aren’t ideal. They may not even be on the shortlist of solutions. They do have one very critical characteristic though: management support and the budget that goes with it.
When faced with this situation, experience has taught me to just go with the flow. Make the focus learning about the proposed solution and educating the provider about the realities of the system they are trying to “fix”. What you will learn is that the solution provider doesn’t always want to implement at all costs. Use them to bring your system out of obsolescence and help your users get the most out of their system.
With the above said, eventually you will have to break down and take the replacement route. But remember, there is nothing wrong with making your existing investments sweat a little if they are still solving your business needs.
Oh, and like everything, your mileage may vary.