The Tyranny of Legacy Digital Systems

Published on December 28, 2020

I recall reading a few years ago that every time we breathe, we all potentially inhale one molecule from the very last breath that Julius Caesar took. I filed that away as one of those statistics worth looking into when I had too much time on my hands. As in, I guess, during a pandemic. This isn’t fake news, by the way. There’s scientific merit to this claim. And, I’m going to try to link it to how the tyranny of legacy, or outdated, digital systems linger on.

As we know well, Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. As a side effect, that provided us with a dim ray of comfort that though our current day politicians may be detestable, at least they don’t stab each other on the senate floor, but I digress. Caesar’s last breath contained around 25 sextillion (that’s 25 followed by 21 zeroes) air molecules, which would have spread around the globe within a couple of years. True, a breath seems like such a small thing compared to the Earth’s atmosphere, but don’t give up yet. If you do the math, you’ll find that roughly one molecule of Caesar’s air will appear in your next breath.

No, This Has Nothing to do with Tyranny or Caesar’s Legacy

To be clear, this isn’t unique to Caesar’s last breath. If you prefer, you could say the same of Marilyn Monroe or a living person like Brad Pitt. Nor is this confined to people’s breaths. Around three-quarters of a human body is water, made from oxygen and hydrogen atoms. These atoms, along with all the others in the world, have been around for eons. They simply shift through any number of organic and inorganic processes, or simply hanging about in the atmosphere. Anybody could have some oxygen or hydrogen atoms in their constitution that had once been part of the body of Einstein, Elvis Presley or Mother Teresa. Or of Pavlov’s dogs.

All of us Come From a Legacy of Stardust

It all started with the Big Bang. The first atoms in the universe turned into hydrogen and helium. These formed the stars, which in turn generated heavier elements in the periodic table up to iron. And, when stars collapsed and died as supernovas, they produced all the heavier elements after iron. The point being that you and everything around you came from that original stardust. All the animate and inanimate objects around you play a zero-sum game with the available atoms on earth. So, yes, you could be related to Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln at an atomic level.

However, with living objects like us humans, the atomic level statistics are more complicated. Most of what makes you “you” will die in days or months, and be continually replaced. This includes the very atoms that make up each of your cells and the calcium that makes up your bones. These very rarely stay in your body for a lifetime. Instead, they’re broken down, taken into your bloodstream, filtered by your liver and kidneys, and excreted. Meanwhile, new atoms are ingested and built into new molecules and cells to keep you going. If you were to look at your body today versus your body seven years ago, you’d find that 99.999% of your atoms had been replaced!

The More You Change, the More the Legacy You Carry

So, the more your cells refresh over time, the more likely that they’re carrying new atoms that were once part of a legacy object. This is a beautiful parallel with the issue of increasing legacy digital systems in enterprises. The push to digitize further adds more systems, which in turn increases the risk that some of those systems don’t play nicely with other systems. The fact is that legacy digital systems are one of the biggest barriers to digital transformation. Along with legacy work processes and legacy people. Is there some cosmic lesson that we can learn from the stars to manage this dilemma?

Well, there is, but only in the sense that the only way to break the cycle of recycled oxygen, hydrogen and carbon atoms which make up most of mankind’s bodies would be to inject disruptive matter from outside of earth, or to chemically catalyze these basic elements into other heavier elements to stop the cycle of reused oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. And, with that, I’ll stop with these two ideas, because I risk torturing the analogy too much.

Breaking the Tyranny of Legacy Digital Systems

There is an industry standard way to fix the rat’s nest of legacy digital systems. The problem is that it involves replacing it with a large complex system that can do it all. These are called enterprise resource planning (ERP) software like SAP or Oracle which attempt to automate it all. It’s a fair approach for the long term, but it comes with a down-side that this takes literally millions (or in the case of very large enterprises, billions) of dollars and several years. So, it’s a disruptive approach in the same sense that an asteroid which injects a lot of new atoms on earth upon impact can be called a disruption. This approach is not just time consuming and expensive, but also risky if it is the only strategy employed.

That’s where the second method of a chemical catalysis comes in. There are increasing number of tools or platforms which help individual legacy systems link to a common data architecture. These “open services” architectures can sustain and catalyze work process and digital transformation efforts in the short and medium term. And, that’s a smarter approach to address the tyranny of legacy systems. Because, much as I like asteroid movies, I’m not sure that the many dinosaurs whose last breaths still show up as molecules in our own breathing would feel kindly about the asteroid impact model of change management.


Tony Saldanha is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. He is the President of Transformant, a consulting firm specializing in assisting organizations through digital transformations. During his twenty-seven-year career at Procter & Gamble, he ran both operations and digital transformation for P&G’s famed global business services and IT organization in every region of the world, ending up as Vice President of Global Business services, next Generation services. He is an advisor to boards and CEOs on digital transformation, a sought-after speaker, and a globally awarded industry thought leader.

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