App modernisation: Everyone is doing it but how do you do it well?

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Every organisation has its own unique story of digital transformation undertaken in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But some of these stories, whether they were about projects already in train or ones that developed at speed in response to the pandemic, are more instructive than others.

That certainly goes for the digital transformation projects that have been underway at Inland Revenue, Countdown and Placemakers, which each demonstrates in its own way what’s required to keep a project on track and deliver the desired outcomes while adapting to a wild card event like a global pandemic.

Those three organisations were the finalists in the business transformation category of last year’s CIO Awards, with Inland Revenue ultimately claiming the award for best business transformation project for its work totally reimagining the country’s tax system.

Umbrellar Connect tells the in-depth stories of those projects in a series of case studies on Inland Revenue, Countdown and Placemakers. But last month also saw a rare opportunity for Auckland-based visitors to digital design and app development company Clearpoint, which brought the finalists together to reflect on 15 months of intense innovation. 

I was privileged to host a panel featuring representatives from the finalist organisations as well as tech industry veterans Nigel Parker, Customer Success Lead at Microsoft; Chris Robb, Chief Customer Transformation Officer at Salesforce and Clearpoint’s Chief Technology Officer, Bain Hollister.

Watch the highlight video above from the Clearpoint event.

Robb, who had a series of senior IT management roles at major companies before joining Salesforce, said a traditional focus on the technology itself had given way to a much greater emphasis on the desired business outcomes.

“CIOs are talking about what capabilities you are bringing to the market. What’s the customer journey, what’s the customer experience?” he told the audience gathered at Clearpoint.

“App modernisation isn’t a technology thing,” added Robb who admits he spent far too much time in his previous roles buried in the technical aspects.

“I thought the world was on my shoulders to make sure that we were supported, secure and modern. I was looking over my shoulder at what our competitors were doing. It is very easy to lose sight of what business outcome you are trying to achieve.”

Careful planning and capability building

For IRD, the desired outcomes were ambitious and numerous. The Government wanted a world-class tax platform that would allow Inland Revenue to migrate off legacy technology, save hundreds of millions of dollars in operating costs, save time for individual and company taxpayers and allow tax-related policy changes to be rolled out quickly and smoothly.

The careful planning, capability building in the business transformation team and clever use of technology meant that the new system came into its own when Covid required billions in relief payments to be made to support people and businesses through the initial Covid-19 lockdown.

The flexibility of the system meant that errors can also be more easily corrected when things go wrong.

“Last year, a change to the Working for Families payment saw hundreds of thousands of Kiwis without money in their bank account at the usual time. Between 8am and 10am we had hundreds of thousands of phone calls, asking ‘where is my money?’ explained Patrick O’Doherty, the Enterprise Architecture & Business Design Lead at Inland Revenue.

“In situations where money is at stake, these design changes have a genuine impact on IRD customers. It’s these kinds of things – being able to change those processes can make a really big difference to people’s lives,” he added.

For Placemakers, laying the groundwork for app modernisation by overhauling core IT systems used by owner-operated stores around the country was critical to success. A push to go paperless by replacing printouts with digital order forms and receipts has had a major impact on the business.

“Three years ago we printed 22 million pages of paper for our internal order processes and we had no digital transactions,” said Wayne Armstrong, Head of Digital Channels at PlaceMakers.

“Now we’re seeing more than 1.5 million digital transactions a year, with an 80 – 90% success rate. That’s reduced our paper usage by 11 million pages – a saving of $500,000 in paper for the organisation.” 

Those fundamental changes cleared the way for Placemakers to roll out its skip the counter service which allows a customer to pick up orders from the warehouse with just the scan of an app and to place and track orders through the Trade app as well. It is fundamentally changing Placemakers’ with thousands of builders and tradespeople.

First cut within five days

A pre-existing culture of innovation within supermarket chain Countdown meant that the company was able to respond rapidly when the pandemic completely changed the retail environment last March.

“When COVID hit we realised that vulnerable people were in need of using our services. We rapidly released a priority assist feature, allowing people in need to have the first go at our delivery windows for online ordering,” said Clinton Chang, Chapter Lead: Delivery Leads at Countdown. 

“The first cut of the development was put out within five days, and within four weeks we had a fully integrated situation. The organisation and the way we set up our business was key for this to happen – it essentially saved the website during COVID.”

Clearpoint’s Bain Hollister said he was seeing more customers move beyond ‘lift and shift’ projects that typically sought to just move applications to cloud platforms.

Microsoft’s Nigel Parker was also seeing customers start to go further, using tools, such as those available on Microsoft’s Azure platform, to add

“The implementation of machine learning into production environments is something that’s starting to happen and those organisations that are doing it and getting the benefit from it are really starting to accelerate in the market,” he said.

“This continuous pace of change is not going to slow down ever. So don’t think that you’ve modernised and it is done,” he warned.

Robb’s parting advice around app modernisation projects was to implement “really good programme and project governance” and ensure there is buy-in from leaders in the business for the journey ahead.

Said Robb: “Double down on your change management, your communication, make sure it’s connected to the customer journey and you are clear on the revenue benefits that are going to come out of this.” 

Five tips for planning your app modernisation journey:

  1. Build a compelling business case: ask yourself the hard questions about what you are choosing to modernise and why? What benefits will flow from it and to whom? Will it really stack up financially?
  2. Map out the capability you have and what else you will need: Can you pull this app modernisation project off in-house or do you need a helping hand from outside experts? Be completely honest in your appraisal of your existing capabilities and ask for help early when needed. 
  3. Bring your people along with you: Everyone in the organisation needs to understand the impetus for the project, its desired outcomes and the role they will play along the journey. Don’t make the mistake of treating change management and communication as an after thought.
  4. Undertake a thorough risk assessment: What could go wrong and what planning have you done to make sure a transformation project doesn’t go off the rails. A risk assessment should include aspects such as business continuity while new technology is rolling out, how to deal with a loss of capability in the team and fall-back measures if technology platforms don’t initially function as anticipated
  5. How do we measure success?: Outline your preferred KPIs and measures of success early. Otherwise, how will you know whether you are achieving your desired outcomes? Make everyone aware of the KPIs that relate to their responsibilities.
Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin

Peter Griffin has been a journalist for over 20 years, covering the latest trends in technology and science for leading NZ media. He has also founded Science Media Centre and established Australasia's largest science blogging platform, Sciblogs.co.nz.

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Application modernisation services address the migration of legacy to new applications or platforms, including the integration of new functionality to provide the latest functions to the business. Modernisation options include re-platforming, re-hosting, recoding, rearchitecting, re-engineering, interoperability, replacement and retirement, as well as changes to the application architecture to clarify which option should be selected.

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