Waiting for the Great Leap Forward

Citizen Engagement, Customer Experience, Employee Empowerment, New Style of IT June 17th, 2013
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Why is My Home IT Better Than My Work IT?

By Mateen Greenway

A Technology Singularity Series

In “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” the late Douglas Adams opined that “no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as an airport’”. As someone who travels a lot, this is a view I can sympathize with. But as someone who works a lot with legacy business applications I would also strongly suggest we could modify this quote to be “no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘As pretty as a legacy business application”.

I believe that one of the biggest barriers for companies, who want to adopt mobile and social computing, is the structure and user interface of their legacy applications. Most business IT users still sit in front of a computer screen, browsing web sites with a keyboard and a mouse. Even where they work remotely or on mobile devices, they still use the same menu driven page structure and navigation systems. One could say you don’t need to fix what’s working, and I would totally agree; except that, staff and user expectations have evolved and people are demanding more. They want to do business with companies and even governments whenever they want, however they want and on whatever device they want. The result is a highly competitive landscape where, armed with the tools of comparison, staff and consumers are demanding more flexible, customized service offering and deeper brand engagement.

Mobile devices typically have limited screen sizes, to use them effectively you need to have apps that are easy to understand and easy to interact with using touch commands on a small screen. Legacy applications are typically complex and the User Interfaces often implement “green screen”, text heavy, keyboard-input based, screens linked by complex and numerous menus. For example, in a legacy environment you are typically faced with a logon screen where you are forced to type in a complex password. Typing such a complex password into a mobile device is very difficult even on a Windows 8, corporate controlled, tablet. So it’s not just transforming the legacy app – it’s about transforming the whole ecosystem under which the user operates. This is not the model that the mobile apps people use personally have; they are simple, visual, designed for touch screen use and generally single function. For them to work well on mobile devices you need more than the traditional “lift and shift” approach to implementing them on new technologies.

This is not to say that you have to get rid of your legacy applications. Aside from the huge cost of doing this, there is also the danger that your business would be adversely impacted by such major systems changes. The legacy systems generally contain the key transactional business processes that an organization has to do to service its core business.

Instead, I believe, that many legacy applications will effectively become platforms supplying data and business processes for a new generation of easy to use, single business process, social, visual user applications that are designed to meet the needs of the mobile users.

This approach allows companies to continue to leverage the significant investment they have made in their current legacy systems while gaining the advantages of mobile and social computing.

Why the reference to airports? One of the key techniques used in designing airports today is Wayfinding. The idea is to build airports that are simple to navigate, where the flow through the airport is simple and the points at which passengers have choices are clearly signposted. Sounds simple, but think of the complex navigation structure more large corporate, or government, bureaucratic process have. These were typically automated using IT, to increase the speed of execution, but the processes themselves were rarely simplified. Think of how complex completing your tax return is, for example. The same principle needs to be applied to mobile and social applications: They need to be simple and clear to use otherwise people will not use them.

From a security perspective these hybrid applications actually allow us to address some major issues: Most importantly they can implement user facing front ends that do not bring corporate data onto the end-user device. Instead they can use secure access to the back-end legacy system which can be run in a secure, legacy, private cloud or managed cloud, environment.



Gaining the benefits of mobility and social computing can’t be achieved simply by accessing your legacy applications via a mobile device. Instead you need a new style of application designed for use by mobile and social users. This doesn’t mean you have to throw away your legacy applications but rather that you need to find a way to incorporate their processes and data into new style applications that are designed to meet the needs of the user not the legacy bureaucratic process.


More posts in the Technology Singularity Series

Also by Mateen Greenway


Mateen GreenwayMateen Greenway is the HP Enterprise Services chief technologist for the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Public Sector where he is responsible for overall strategy, technical direction, innovation and leading the senior client facing technical leaders and key Account Chief Technologists in this major Industry.

  • knbizz

    A little bit ill based statement anyway. The problem is the same as on-line teaching. And the problem is that our knowledge, ingenuity, creativity and similar are turned on by the other people and the emotional stance of the person. So who is learning in real class gets more than who is learning on-line. There was a nice scientific investigation, published in resume in NYT two years ago. Brainstorming for example is 3 times less effective than brainstorm in real group in one room by using the best possible on-line tools (and they are really good) . So it will be the same as in education — to spare the costs of having offices, on-line means are proposed, for cheap labor and low-level low class office jobs.

  • Hylde Khaimov

    So, basically, people are whiny little [ed.] swine, that constantly need to be entertained with fancy new gimmicks and slick layouts.. because anything that distracts them from their actual occupation is a welcome surprise.

    I say we create a new app, which tracks what employees are doing(and aren’t..), after a certain amount of points have been collected, the employee gains a ”level” and is one closer to the illustrious level 10, which bears the title ”Grandmaster Exemployee”.
    I suggest we call it ”The Mythical Tales of Honest Labor”

    • Mateen Greenway

      No, people need applications that are simple to use on mobile devices.

      • Oliver Jones

        Obvious observation: Perhaps mobile devices aren’t the right tools for the job? User expectations may need to be brought in line with what the business requires, not their mobile devices.

        After all, if the only tool you have is a hammer, pretty soon every problem starts looking like a nail. I know it’s popular among the CTOs who like to quote Gartner’s insistence that the personal computer is dead (in order to cover up their own obvious ignorance), but the personal computer has a long life ahead of it.

  • makarisma

    I generally agree with most of what is written in the article. However, having worked in both the private and public sectors, I can say this much, that success in adopting new mobile technology for legacy apps depends a lot on the willingness to accept change by users of those apps. Without which, any new style apps would not be popular.

  • YomiBazuaye

    So, in a nut-shell:
    “Stick a web service in front of your legacy application”

    Far from ground breaking news (unless I’ve misread something).

    • Mateen Greenway

      I believe that most web services have the same usability issues as legacy applications. It’s much more about presenting information in more visual ways to make it easier for people to understand it and respond appropriately.

      • YomiBazuaye

        Thanks for replying.

        So, perhaps I should have summarised as: “… put Service Oriented Architecture ‘wrappers’ around legacy apps. And then create “sexier” client apps which communicate via SOA, and are optimised for mobile devices.”

        The real point I wanted to make was that everyone has been doing/trying to do this for a fair old while now, so whilst I agree with everything that the article says, I feel that it doesn’t offer as much insight/perspective as it could.

        It would have been great to hear about some experiences with things like:
        Preparing for the change (knowledge transfer, skilling up the users [and developers]).
        Monitoring success/failure after implementing changes.
        Security vs convenience with regards to mobile business apps.

        Anyway, will leave in peace now, and check back for future articles.

        • Mateen Greenway

          Hi, thanks for your comments, I will see if I can do another blog covering the areas you mention.

          • nathan

            I am astonished to see this confident article from Hp. My section of the NHS (England) has been crippled by its “upgrade” to Desktop 21, seven months ago. Everything runs about ten times as slowly; it can’t even track the mouse around the screen; moving a file from one folder to another typically takes 30 seconds and a confirmation screen; it crashes 3 times a day; it prevents us using all the efficiency software we had in place before.

          • I am not the one

            I totally agree with the Nathan and Anteaus.
            But taking into consideration that the reason why system are upgraded its to reduce for one Fraud and deploying applications require more time and patience from the end users side in order to secure ones safety or the business. Trying to use your mobile phone for daily office work (Not just reading emails but deploying Ms office to compile a report) is a total no no. I would like to say keep innovation
            simple and most devices are created so that users can customise them to meet their needs. Consider whats required and what type of device is applicable.

  • ecocoop

    Legacy systems tend to last because alternatives are not sufficiently compelling to force change. Put another way “If it aint broke why fix it?”

  • Thinkpurpose

    Exactly! A question I asked my IT people this very week.


  • LuftwaffeKraut

    I think your airport comparison is inaccurate. It certainly is not wayfinding which drives the design of airports nowadays — this may have been true in the 80s or 90s. But ever since retail has become a major revenue driver for airports, it’s all about manipulating the crowd to choose the most profitable way through a terminal; not the shortest or the simplest. Clearly sign-posting plays a role, but “wayfinding” implies that the user has a choice, which is not the case.

  • Jeff

    This seems to imply that users want to access their work files through a mobile device. I don’t. With large Word or Excel docs, with Publisher or with our central databases, give me a big screen and a mouse/keyboard at any time. You just can’t work on these on a toy screen.

  • Anteaus

    The reason most users prefer legacy software like Windows XP is not so much familiarity but freedom from the cluttering gadget-junk and illogical ways of doing things that infest recent offerings. The problem arises because programmers think they have the right to dictate paradigm-changes in the way users do things, for no good reason other than fashion. They overlook the fact that a computer is a tool, and it is no use trying to sell a tool shich is unsuitable for the job in hand.

    As for mobile devices the sensible approach is to recognise that they have their limitations, and whilst a phone which can read email is useful, attempting to do publishing work on one (or whatever) is silly. Meanwhile trying to graft a mobile OS onto a large screen, as in Windows 8, combines the worst features of both into a confusing and infuriating mess.

  • tom rose

    Isn’t this just stating the obvious? Maybe sometimes the obvious needs saying.

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