Systems of Engagement: How to Get Revolutionary Business Results from an Evolutionary IT Approach

The increasing demand from business users for mobile and web-based access to core enterprise applications has created consequential new challenges for corporate IT groups. Many of those core business and department applications—particularly ERP, finance and control systems—may still run on early proprietary flavors of Unix, or even on mainframes. They weren’t designed to support lightweight, mobile, wireless access.

Certainly, a “rip and replace” approach is one option: tear out legacy applications and replace them with newer Linux- or Windows-based, or even cloud delivered suites. But both business users and their IT counterparts cringe at the thought of the time, expense, and business disruption of this approach, not to mention the loss of substantial intellectual and financial capital invested in existing core enterprise systems.

Systems of Engagement - 2020 Tools Report from Forrester ResearchA better approach, according to Forrester Research, is to retain those core business applications (systems of record), while providing the simplified, flexible, web-based access required by business users through interface-layer systems of engagement (built on new and open technologies).

In the report, Prepare Your Infrastructure And Operations For 2020 With Tools And Technologies, Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst Jean-Pierre Garbani notes that the “vast majority” of core business management and control applications are still on legacy hardware and software platforms. The challenge, he contends, is to integrate these legacy “systems of record” with newer, cloud / mobile / web-based “systems of engagement.”

The report’s author calls resistance to cloud computing and the consumerization of IT a “losing battle.” This evolution is, he says, inevitable. Providing mobile and web access to core enterprise applications and data improves business competitiveness, helps retain the best and brightest employees, and, implemented properly, reduce support costs. However, it is up to IT to shape and guide these changes, and the Forrester report offers invaluable guidance in this regard. It looks at the integration of systems of record with systems of engagement and the best way to improve customer and employee experience while reducing help desk costs.

Embracing the new cloud-based, mobile-enabled, consumerized BYOD environment need not cause risky business or IT disruption, and certainly doesn’t require the massive time and cost of a rip-and-replace project. The key is to separate what you have from what you need, without throwing away what you have. IT and business leaders need not forsake their organizations’ pasts in order to seize the opportunities presented by the untethering of devices from networks (and workers from their desks).

The Forrester report notes that the IT function has been continually evolving since the 1960s. In most large enterprises, applications were created, modified and expanded over time, “piling up layers upon layers of code running on the technology du jour.” Management and control systems were connected and combined, creating dependencies between applications built on different generations of technology. Therefore, “the transformation from a centralized IT to a decentralized and empowered BT (business technology model) has to be carefully planned: IT has to offer a continuity of services while transforming its legacy into an abstracted environment suitable for decentralization.”

In Forrester’s model, illustrated below, “systems of record are a mix of in-house enterprise-specific management solutions…often complemented by another layer of acquired legacy solutions such as core enterprise resource planning (ERP) and finance and control systems…These systems of record focus on corporate processes and departmental transactions…Systems of engagement, on the other hand, focus on interactions with customers, partners, or employees, first through websites, portals, and eCommerce, and increasingly through mobile device apps.”

Systems on Engagement on Systems of Record: Forrester Research

While integrating systems of engagement with systems of record is far less costly and disruptive than replacing core enterprise software, the costs may still be higher than business users perceive. Forrester notes that cloud-based services and apps which appear to provide business management and control capabilities in a cheaper and easier way than corporate IT are neither as cheap or easy as they seem. Hidden costs, in the form of integration with legacy systems and disparate enterprise data sources. lurk behind these seemingly simple apps.  Systems of engagement need to be “coordinated with existing enterprise systems.”

Fortunately, model orchestration engines or workflow automation software tools can reduce the effort and complexity of building the required “restrictive and sequential transaction” links between systems of engagement and systems of record, as well as among and between core enterprise applications themselves. Such tools should be able to adapt to whatever is “under the hood” in terms of enterprise applications and federated data sources, making the integrations and connections transparent to the business user.

Beyond avoiding the nightmare of implementing an entirely new core enterprise platform, the system of engagement approach provides a number of additional benefits, including:

  • Avoiding the cost and complexity of modifying core code in legacy applications.
  • Providing users with simplified interfaces. With an app or web front end, there’s no need to duplicate the original UI of legacy systems; users can get a simple interface showing only the information and fields needed for a specific business purpose.
  • Requiring no training. A simple UI presenting only the necessary fields (with user-friendly field labels and context-sensitive help) eliminates the need to train users.
  • Empowering business users to create their own processes workflows. Because there is no need to modify core legacy code, business managers can create their own interfaces and underlying, automated workflows, then test, modify and optimize them—all with minimal IT assistance.
  • Enabling active self service, which, as the report notes, is what users prefer and have come to expect. This is self service 2.0: employees can not simply find information, but actually get things done (e.g., a broken printer repaired) using a simple interface tied to an orchestration engine which automates as much of the process (approvals, scheduling, chargebacks, etc.) as possible.

The concept is simple:  Systems designed to “engage customers” are supposed to be flexible, scalable and all about user experience.  By design they should leverage data in other systems so it is re-useable.  Systems of record (ERP, HRMS, ITSM, CRM tools etc..), on the other hand, are designed to store data and transactions, not to provide the capabilities enabled by systems of engagement.

This approach is also at the core of enterprise request management (ERM), a service fulfillment strategy that combines an intuitive web portal interface with an advanced task workflow engine which communicates with and between in-place legacy business applications to automate service request and delivery processes.

ERM expands the concept of IT service catalogs across the enterprise, allowing users to order any type of service (e.g., from HR, facilities, finance, or other groups—as well as IT) from a single web portal. Business function managers can create their own service items and process workflows, increasing their sense of ownership in the system. This is vital, because as the Forrester report states when discussing budgets for BT empowerment, business units will have to share the expenses with IT, which they “will be reluctant to do unless they can improve their productivity by receiving better business services.”

In support of this approach, the Forrester paper says that the final objective is a business service catalog integrating systems of record with systems of engagement to minimize administration and maintenance costs, along with tools to monitor service quality and manage billing and department chargebacks. These “tools of the new” IT function are also foundational elements of an ERM strategy.

Utilizing systems of engagement atop systems of record enables enterprises to embrace the new technology needs and expectation of a mobile workforce without discarding years of experience and investment in core legacy business applications—and opens up a broad new array of possibilities.

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