“We didn’t know how good we had it.”

Strategy

The unintended consequences of replacing outdated enterprise systems.

Scott Woods    Published Feb 8, 2023

A couple years ago, an IT leader at a prominent university mentioned to me that they had recently finished the rollout of a new enterprise system.

The new enterprise system was purchased to replace a legacy homegrown system. The old system was outdated in appearance. It was written using technology that’s now considered to be dated. Over the years it received less and less attention. It worked for them, but over time it came to be seen as old and ugly. It became a clear and obvious target for replacement. 

By all accounts, the rollout of the new system was a success. They’d gone through the RFP process, selected a vendor, negotiated their price, planned the configuration, worked through the integration process, trained the faculty and staff, and flipped the switch at the end of it all with a minimum of downtime. That was several months ago.

I congratulated him on the accomplishment, but there was no joy on his face, and he shook his head and looked downward. 

“We wish we could take it all back. We didn’t know how good we had it.”

How could this be?

“The legacy system worked exactly how we needed it to. It described our organization perfectly because it had been designed specifically for it from the beginning,” he explained.

“We didn’t know how many things made us unique. Over and over during the implementation we were forced to make compromises so that we could conform to the way that the new software needed things to work. But a lot of good things were lost in the process. Even now, we have a system that technically works, but it feels awkward to everyone. It feels like a square peg in a round hole, and there’s no way to make it better.”

Unfortunately, this is a relatively frequent outcome for enterprise software in higher education. After several million dollars, and a decade or so of person-years, the staff feel nothing but regret and longing for the aging legacy system (or at least strongly dislike the new system). And yet, by many conventional measures, this implementation would have been judged to be a success. Whose “success” was it?


Encounters like this one helped to shape West Arete’s path for software development for higher ed. We’ll share what we’ve learned in a series of upcoming articles.

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