By Sarah Nicastro, Creator, Future of Field Service
Air travel has gotten more frustrating every year, and 2022 was already on track to be one of the worst on record in terms of flight cancellations when a winter storm downed thousands of flights just before Christmas. Then as the weather cleared, Southwest Airlines continued canceling flights because of a failure in its scheduling system, leaving thousands more travelers stranded. Shortly after that, a damaged database file in a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) system led to even more flights being grounded across the U.S.
Poor weather aside, the issues at the FAA and Southwest point to a bigger problem – technology has become a foundational element of every business, but far too many companies take a major gamble by relying on outdated, obsolete, and seemingly fragile systems to manage their operations.
You do not have to look far for similar examples in other industries. There was the clunky software that led to a half-billion-dollar mistake at Citigroup, and the rats nest of HR software mucking up how Amazon manages employee leave. A Ponemon Institute study estimates that nearly 60% of cyberattacks could have been prevented by installing available software patches. Companies large and small are not doing a very good job of keeping their IT infrastructure up to date, and in a business environment where the pace of innovation, new customer demands, and the need for greater flexibility are constantly increasing, that is simply unsustainable.
Service organizations – even those that were early adopters of key technologies – should take a lesson from these failures. Technology investment is not a one-and-done proposition; software and hardware infrastructure need to evolve right along with your business needs and the general IT environment. Like a garden, or a marriage, or your children – whatever metaphor you care to deploy – technology investments need tending to.
Sometimes, of course, a crisis can be the catalyst that shakes an organization out of its IT languor and prompts action. IDC published its annual Future of Digital Innovation predictions back in November, and the very first one was, “By 2024, the top 5 companies in each sector will be those that used technology to innovate their way out of a global crisis such as recession or supply chain disruption.”
A technology investment by itself is no panacea, though. Back in 2002, department store chain Kmart filed for bankruptcy, in part because of a botched supply chain management system deployment. In an effort to regain ground against Walmart, the company attempted a rapid rip-and-replace approach to its IT platforms. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to, and Kmart entered a decades-long downward spiral.
The Power of Proactiveness
A reactive approach to aging technology is always going to be more disruptive and costly than addressing the problem before a failure. What should service leaders take from all of this? The first step is to acknowledge if your reality is that critical technology investments or updates have been put off and then work to remedy that as quickly as possible.
Yes, that can be easier said than done. There are a lot of reasons that important upgrades are skipped – budgets may be tight, and your IT staff may be overloaded. The thought of training employees on a new system may seem daunting. There may be institutional roadblocks to change. A previous deployment may have not gone as well as you wanted. Or the old systems may be working just fine, trapping you in the warm embrace of complacency.
The problem is that many of these systems were designed for maximum efficiency and low costs, but without much in the way of resilience. And to be fair, the “if it's not broke, don’t fix it” attitude many companies had about their aging technology was enabled by a long period of (relative) peace, economic growth, and low interest rates. Unexpected disruptions (disease, war, unpredictable weather) can rapidly expose the faulty wiring underpinning these systems.
If your organization is coasting along on technology that hasn't been meaningfully revisited for five years or more, you may be setting yourself up for a costly business disruption. And it isn’t only about investing in new technology, but also making sure that existing solutions are properly maintained and upgraded. That does not simply mean applying regular security patches or version upgrades, but also evaluating these systems on a regular basis in the context of your business. Can your technology solutions keep up your current rate of growth? Can they handle an increase in business volume or a larger number of employees? Is there redundancy built into the system in the event of a crash or a cyber attack? How much support does the vendor provide (and does the vendor even still exist)? Are your hardware and software upgrades staying in sync? Do your solutions equally support your customers and your technicians?
The key is to ask those questions early and often, before a crisis occurs. Hindsight may be very clear, but it is also expensive (Southwest took an $800 million hit to its quarterly earnings in the aftermath of the holiday season). At many organizations, it takes an existential threat before leadership will even consider making a critical technology change. In field service – an industry where agility and continuous evolution are increasingly table stakes for competitiveness – no one can afford to wait that long.