There’s a scene in Mad Men, set at the end of the ‘60s, where ad agency Sterling Cooper invests in one of the world’s first office computers, the IBM System/360. It’s a massive commitment – they build a climate-controlled room to house it, taking up a serious amount of office space and causing more than a little consternation among the employees. Of course, it’s played for laughs to a certain degree – now that we have more computing power in our pockets that the whole of NASA had for the 1969 moon landing, it’s amusing to look back at those cumbersome machines which needed so much care, attention and cash to maintain a processing capacity which didn’t get out of the kilobytes.
However, while we’ve come to take for granted the truly astonishing capabilities of our smartphones, tablets and PCs, there is still a residual feeling that tech is inherently tricky and expensive to implement on any kind of scale.
This is particularly true of businesses. Once they’ve taken that ‘Mad Men’ step and invested in their first system, all other developments and investments are held up against how they will affect this ‘legacy’ platform, whether it continues to be fit for purpose or not. Received wisdom is that any changes to what already exists will be disruptive, costly and present a risk to existing operations.
Busting the legacy myth
The truth is that for most businesses, technology has moved on in leaps and bounds since they initially became computerised. Thanks to advances in data management, software development and mobile capabilities, it is entirely possible to trial small tech projects using agile development and iterative processes to make improvements and changes ‘on the fly’ without disrupting existing systems or the business as a whole.
This is because, along with devices becoming increasingly mobile, data has become mobile, too. The technology exists to allow all systems, no matter how old or ingrained, to speak to each other without the need for major reconfiguring or expensive replatforming. This opens up a whole new world of opportunity for businesses wanting to stay ahead of the game without committing to a wholesale restructure of their IT architecture.
It’s a case of ‘do or die’
Given the speed at which technology is developing, businesses that don’t embrace this kind of change will undoubtedly find themselves falling behind and becoming less relevant to both employees and customers, negatively affecting the bottom line. Realistically, all it takes is a willingness to see technology as a gateway to better business, rather than something difficult which should be feared. There are a number of ways businesses can try out new technology without disrupting their day-to-day work:
· Set up labs and startup incubators external to BAU, as John Lewis has done
· Explore the possibilities of using middleware to quickly and easily ‘join up’ company data across all departments for a fresh, facts-and figures-based look at how it actually operates
· Team up with trusted partners to run small trials of apps and other mobile innovations such as interactive tables, mPoS and wearables
· Work with staff to discover how they use personal technology – there may well be business synergies
Relatively low cost and low impact from an operations point of view, these ‘try before you trust’ developments are key to staying ahead of the tech game. Businesses that want a robust future will have to acknowledge this, adjust their thinking and ensure the legacy platforms are not presenting a barrier to experimentation with modern tech systems. Don Draper would approve.