Making the case for gradual digital transformation

23 Mar 2023

Image: © freshidea/

Camunda CEO Jakob Freund makes the case for gradual, incremental digital transformation and automation so that businesses can avoid costly and unwieldy service disruptions for customers and employees.

If you feel a renewed sense of urgency around legacy modernisation in the air, you’re not alone. Anyone paying attention to the infamous holiday flight cancellations in the US last December saw a legacy tech meltdown on full display.

These types of customer experience disruptions can cause major reputational damage and revenue loss. Yet, they happen daily across every industry, including financial services, healthcare, retail, manufacturing and more.

Many companies mistakenly think that ripping and replacing their legacy technology systems is the only solution to digital transformation.

While an all-at-once modernisation effort certainly works, gradual digital transformation is far more cost-effective, less disruptive to the business and leads to better outcomes.

Why? As an example, more than 800bn lines of COBOL code run on mainframe systems in production today. Imagine how disruptive it would be if these systems were upgraded all at once and taken offline entirely?

However, keeping COBOL technology in place forever may not be an option. The programming language was developed in 1959 and the professionals that maintain it are quickly aging out of the workforce.

According to Deloitte, in the five years leading up to 2018, organisations lost 23pc of their mainframe workforce, with 63pc of these jobs remaining unfilled.

Fortunately, there’s a middle ground between completely disrupting business-critical processes and achieving modern automation goals.

Gradual modernisation

According to the 2023 State of Process Orchestration report, 96pc of IT leaders believe that process automation is critical to achieving their digital transformation goals.

Despite its importance, more than three in five decision makers described digital transformation as difficult to achieve. Often automation-based digital transformation projects are too ambitious and teams don’t know where to start.

One way to make modernisation and automation easier is by approaching it step by step.

For example, a bank with a large, ingrained legacy system might choose to automate isolated tasks with solutions like robotic process automation (RPA).

While RPA gives the illusion of progress on its surface, these automations happen in silos. To truly drive process automation at scale, organisations need to orchestrate siloed automation efforts like RPA alongside the other ‘endpoints’ of a business process. Think people, systems and devices.

This same bank might find it can gradually sunset RPA bots one by one, replacing them with modern, microservices-based applications. These applications can easily be worked into an end-to-end process with process orchestration.

Over time, IT architects and software developers can replace the legacy system without disrupting day-to-day banking operations.

Process orchestration

From air travel delays to disjointed customer support interactions, the customer experience often suffers at the hands of disconnected, siloed automation efforts. Equally, the employee experience breaks down when mundane, repetitive tasks could otherwise be automated.

Process orchestration could hold the key to driving better customer experiences and unlocking more time for fulfilling, productive work.

With that said, working with legacy systems isn’t always easy. Start by prioritising which processes impact your customers and employees the most. Automate those processes in a stepwise manner, as described above, and orchestrate disparate endpoints together to make end-to-end processes more efficient and effective.

The objective is to design processes that meet the needs of people, not the needs of your technology stack.

From there, it’s easier to understand how to work with legacy IT systems and infrastructure, and make a gradual transition to replacing it in the future.

In the current economy, there’s no room for error or business process disruption. At the same time, it’s too costly to replace large-scale legacy systems all at once.

A far more pragmatic approach is to embrace process orchestration to make the most of the organisation’s existing technology investments — whether that’s a COBOL-based system from 1980 or an RPA side project from 2020. Your customers and employees will thank you.

By Jakob Freund

A mean with red hair and glasses, wearing a black t-shirt, leans against a counter and smiles at the camera.

Image: Jakob Freund

Jakob Freund is the co-founder and CEO of Camunda. He is the driving force behind Camunda’s global growth and takes responsibility for the company culture. As well as holding an MSc in Computer Science, he co-authored the book Real-Life BPMN and is a sought-after speaker at technology and industry events.

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