Posted by Gordon on 20 November 2007
The New York Times reports that Thomas Edison’s original DC Grid in Manhattan is finally being switched off.
As Nick Carr suggests, information systems have layers of history, just like their mechanical engineering ancestors. Nearly all of the enterprise solutions I’ve built have involved building a new solution on top of, around, or at least loosely connected to an existing one. Usually these were big, scary mainframe systems, written in COBOL, and most seemed to do batch financial transactions.
While it’s nice to know that good ideas tend to stick around, this baggage can also slow the rate of adoption and the pace of innovation. You’d think there would be higher turnover in enterprise systems.
Why are legacy systems such a prominent feature? Some possible theories include:
- New ideas grow from old ideas
“Standing on the shoulders of giants”
Marketing nowadays seems so obsessed with ‘innovation’ and ‘differentiation’ that it often seems as though every product is a brand new idea that was never thought of before. This is patently untrue. As an example, we need look no further than Amazon’s recent Kindle announcement. They’re trying to market e-books to people, using an electronic reader. Their inspiration? The actual book (A-Book?).
- People hate change.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”
On the whole, people really don’t like it when things change. While this cliche is perhaps a bit too pessimistic overall, it’s certainly true when it comes to the workplace. Remember that a lot of people aren’t primarily working because of their passion for whatever menial task they do. They’re in it for the money. Employees might feel that having to learn a whole new system is a waste of time. It might make people feel uncomfortable with a job that they felt they understood just fine. So, in order to appease people, new solutions are ‘phased in’.
- Because they don’t need to be replaced.
“If it ain’t broke – don’t fix it”
Newer isn’t always better. There are numerous reasons for adopting a new system, and a near-infinite range of human motivations for making a change. Sometimes these systems are actually made worse. As an example, consider Microsoft’s OOXML format, released with Office 2007. Initial investigations indicate that most people are still saving their documents in the old, .DOC format. The reason for this is that the documents look exactly the same, and they can share them with lots of people. If Office 2007 didn’t support the new format, I suspect that nobody would care very much.
- Because in some niche somewhere, someone is wedded to them.
“Where you stand is where you sit”
It’s easier to sell a system to a select few — and have them defend it and represent it — than it is to sell to the masses. When the new direct current electrical grid came out of beta in 1882, companies interested in profiting from a good idea began building for the new power system. The resultant ecosystem of companies and customers proved pretty hard to shake — there are still elevators in Manhattan that run on DC power, 125 years later. Enterprise systems are platforms, and they become the part of the foundation of the organizations that own them.
Which ever way you look at them, legacy systems are a crucial part of the way enterprises work. Part of me wants to assume that eventually, one brand new shiny solution will rule them all, but the reality is a long long way from that. Just as we needed the initial electrical grid to show us what was possible in 1882, we need these older enterprise systems to help us grow and improve the work that we do.