The thought of changing one of your legacy IT systems for new cutting-edge technology might well get the average business user excited but at the same time also fills the average IT team with dread at the thought of migrating years of data or integrating it with existing solutions. While there have been great strides to make it easier for you to look at alternative energy suppliers or banking services, how does this compare to changing or adding a software supplier?
Housing IT suppliers are unlikely to all agree a standard data format for the applications widely used in our sector and nor should we expect them to. The sector needs to drive innovation from vendors to meet the changing needs of organisations, whether the driver is to incorporate new digital channels or to comply with legislative changes. Designing a common platform for a data dictionary for the housing sector is not just unlikely, it would probably have a negative long-term impact. However, there is the counter argument that a defined data-set could help new vendors’ technologies enter the sector.
So, what are the barriers you face if you do decide to go down the route of replacing a whole solution or even a module within your product portfolio with regards to the dreaded data migration?
Getting your data out
- What data do we need, especially in light of GDPR?
- Do we understand the database structure?
- Is there an export tool available?
- Do we have the skills and/or resources to export the data?
- Is there documentation for exporting the data?
- Is the cost (and risk) of exporting the data proportional to the likely benefits of the new solution?
Getting your data in
The process of getting your data in to your new solution has similar challenges but with the added complexities of:
- Different data definitions;
- Different data formats;
- Complex labour-intensive import routines.
With the barriers for your data migration now laid out, does it still make sense to continue down the route of deploying a new solution?
The answer should be ‘yes’, but it may be that the process is considered just too complicated and not sufficiently cost effective so projects do not come to fruition. If there is a reluctance to change because of the perception of added complexities as well as real costs associated with the process then surely this isn’t helping to drive competition between existing vendors and is actively discouraging new players from making the investments needed to break into the social housing sector.
If your business has done its due diligence and strategically reviewed the installed solutions stack and identified where it requires an alternative system to meet the demands of the business, how can the pain of ripping out a legacy system be numbed?
Many procurement processes recently have used a methodology called ‘competitive dialogue’ which allows you to engage sensibly with prospective suppliers before the tender drawbridge is pulled up from a communications point of view and the formal procedures begin; this is a process some organisations have found more rewarding than the standard tender process.
However, is there the opportunity to actively encourage your prospective suppliers to offer a ‘try before you buy’ service, often known as a proof-of-concept (PoC) and to make this an even more attractive offering, why can’t it be done with your data?
Unfortunately, this brings us back to the aforementioned barriers to changing a solution, but there are steps you can take to reduce the barriers in your way. For any PoC, the challenges can be categorised into infrastructure, application and data.
From an infrastructure point of view, there have been numerous articles in this publication regarding virtualisation and cloud-based services, so spinning up a server or two doesn’t have the implications or costs that it used to. The application installation and configuration will be an area where you can challenge your supplier regarding its ease of use and customisation. While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a supplier to configure an end-to-end solution, why not concentrate on the reason why you are looking for a new solution in the first place and identity a piece of functionality which is a real crowd-pleaser and ask them to build it for you?
This then leaves you with the data migration, or in some cases just a simple initial data load, to see what your data will look like in the new solution; again there are options for you to enable a meaningful PoC without all of the headaches.
Use technology and experience
There are tools available to allow you to extract your data from most commonly-used databases but normally the biggest problem is understanding the data structure you have. In order to cost-effectively provide a starting point for the data load of your new application, you will need a combination of technology and expertise and there are vendors in housing who can offer such services. It may be that you actually have the skills in your own teams to understand the data structure but they don’t have the technology to perform the process; again there are options available to you for tools specifically used within the sector. Most prospective vendors will be keen to help as part of any PoC facilitating the data load into their solution.
The same solutions and experience can be used if you are adding or replacing a software model to an existing stack by providing the integration layer to help you overcome the two-way flow of data required if your PoC must also prove integration capabilities.
This approach may add an additional layer of up-front costs, perhaps even before a procurement exercise, but why not challenge your current methods of selecting IT suppliers because it should demonstrate at a very early stage the benefits of an alternative solution choice, allow your business to make much more informed choices and widen the choice of applications available, in contrast to where all too often the emphasis is on a referenceable track record.
By challenging current suppliers and embracing new suppliers, combined with technology and experience, a new approach may save you costs in the long term.
Dave Carr is a director of Manifest Software Solutions.