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Technical Debt Unravelled for SME Owners

Small business owners who have an online presence, be it a website or a presence on some of the more popular social media platforms, must have been feeling some concern over recent weeks with all of the negative news we’ve been hearing about data breaches.  From the news that Russia has used data gleaned from Facebook accounts to effect political change to the news on false information being disseminated across the internet, these are developments that give cause for concern.  Last week we saw the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg being grilled by the US Congress for two days as politicians struggled to come to terms with the implications of the amount of data being stored and used in this Digital Age.  Today we’re going to take a look at technical debt and what that means.

Technical debt refers to IT systems and services – incidents like last year’s ransom attacks on the NHS in the UK.  These attacks were possible because the NHS IT systems had not been upgraded for many years, a practice that’s all too common in public organisations that struggle to manage their financial resources due to lack of funding.  We’re likely to see more incidents of this type with other public organisations, such as local authorities, that are dependent on public money to survive.  However, business organisations, large and small, need to ensure that they are vigilant when it comes to keeping current with their data.

For most organisations, the term technical debt refers to the accumulation of a series of business decisions, all of which are usually taken in isolation.  While each business decision would have seemed valid at the time, these decisions are often made without consideration of the effect on other systems within the organisation, especially the overall IT architecture.  This can lead to an unnecessarily complex IT infrastructure which limits performance, scalability and agility.  This is itself can be a problem in today’s ever-changing digital landscape and can require a lot of internal resources (and costs) to manage effectively.

Many organisations are dependent on bespoke or customised applications that are complex and difficult to change.  They don’t usually come to attention until they fail or there is a requirement to migrate them into new operating systems.  It’s very often the case that the person who implemented them does not even work for the company any more.  To make matters worse, they’re often written in outdated code on an obsolete platform.

The first step, as with financial debt, is to understand the problem.  IT teams and systems are there to serve the needs of the business so working out what services a particular business needs is essential.  It’s then a case of deciding which systems are necessary to support thee services, and whether or not they can be provided via cloud, which are best outsourced to a third party and which to keep in-house. 

Each business organisation has different business needs and require different IT solutions.  While some legacy systems may be unavoidable, the more systems that can be standardised and simplified, the lower the risk of falling into technical debt.