by Martha Heller

Mobile Front-End Extends Life of Legacy Systems

Feb 25, 20147 mins
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Interview with Sheryl Fikse Bunton, CIO of AGCO

Sheryl Fikse Bunton, AGCO, CIO
My favorite metaphor lately is the iceberg metaphor, where the tip of the iceberg is the percentage of your IT budget dedicated to mobility, big data and enhancing the customer experience.  This is the part of the iceberg that all of your business partners have their eye on.  The rest of the iceberg, the part below sea-level and visible only to you, the CIO, is bloated, expensive, barely integrated and insecure.

The more you pander to the tip of the iceberg, the weightier the bottom gets until it pulls the whole thing under.

Your challenge, of course, is to deliver to the tip of the iceberg, while at the same time, tend to your legacy infrastructure.  This “Archivist v. Futurist Paradox” is the great equalizer. It applies to all companies, even new ones. To quote my friend CIO Tom Murphy, “Legacy begins the day you put something in.”

The Problem

Sheryl Fikse Bunton, CIO of AGCO and before that, Southwire, knows all about the iceberg. “When you have a bunch of disparate systems, you typically have different vintages of technologies and fragmented processes,” she says.  “If one technology is five years old, and another is 25 years old, your users have to open multiple screens; they do not have a seamless process.”

Let’s say your sales order entry system is on a newer platform, but it has to link to an inventory capture system that is 25 years old. If a sales rep is in the order entry system and a customer asks for a particular product, the rep has to open a new window that takes him to a green screen that requires tribal knowledge codes. “Long-term employees might be comfortable with the legacy inventory look-up system but not with the modern user interface,” says Bunton.   “Going from a 30 year old green screen to an SAP user interface can be a rude awakening. Likewise, your newer employees may have trouble with the older systems.

The challenge of disparate systems, says Bunton, extends past technology and process.  Disparate systems have a direct impact on the way employees think about their jobs.  “If your legacy systems require users to break down processes into little pieces, you wind up with people who cannot think holistically about problems,” she says.

So, what is a CIO faced with such a challenge to do?

The Solution

Bunton and her team at Southwire were faced with a similar scenario where legacy technologies fragmented their sales order entry processes.  So, they decided to take action.  “We all agreed that the iPad is one of the most intuitive user interfaces in the history of computing,” recalls Bunton.  “Most people are comfortable with it right out of the box, so we decided to use it as our bridging device.”

Bunton and her team developed APIs to connect a set of legacy systems and present them to users in a mobile user interface.

“Our API solution took away the issue of having an old system over here and a new one over there,” says Bunton.  “Our employees no longer had to open up three screens before they completed their process.” The iPad application allowed an array of users including internal and distributor sales people to pull up a dashboard for a customer location, look up quotes, orders, and contacts, and even drill down into an order to look at the individual line item.   “We paid a lot of attention to the visuals,” says Bunton.  “We used  truck icons, for example, to give a simple view of which items have been delivered and which have not.”

Why do it?

Southwire had its share of 25 to 40 year old systems that were so old that Bunton could no longer find anyone to run them. But with the sales team frustrated with their inability to do their jobs, she did not have the time to tend to any major reengineering effort.  “Doing this sort of mobile presentment allowed us to solve the immediate issue, and gave us the space to make the right prioritization decisions behind the scenes,” she says.

The mobile platform solution returned inventory and other data faster than the on-premise legacy systems; and the advanced search features moved the customer service rep experience ahead by several generations — and all of this at a fraction of the cost of putting in a whole new system.   This strategy allowed the IT team to solve some immediate problems; it gave them some space to handle the reengineering and implantation work needed for a complete overall in the future.

As CIOs, you want to prioritize the things that provide maximum customer facing gratification, but sometimes you have to deal with the issues that customers don’t even know or care about. “This kind of approach has allowed me to pursue a more balanced strategy for upgrading across a range of legacy environments,” says Bunton.

The Advice

Southwire’s API solution is a band-aid that allowed Bunton the room to work on some of her hairier legacy problems, but she had to exercise restraint.  “The iPad interface is not a replacement solution for a new front-end,” says Bunton. “If your salesforce tells you that they cannot do their jobs because of their systems, and your customers are angry, you can build an app like this and solve your immediate problem,” she says.  “We took most of the noise out of the sales process issue.  But our application did not solve all of our problems. It did not make it easier, for example, to enter orders.”

Bunton cautions that you have to be aware that these are targeted solutions that can line up against your big problems, but they are not a substitute for a new front end system.  “In your kitchen, you have a microwave and an oven.  The oven is the fully developed front-end system, and the microwave is the targeted solution.  If you put all this new functionality in your microwave, you now have two ovens, but no microwave.”  In other words, you cannot have a collection of mobile apps instead of a working ERP.

The iceberg problem exists, in one form or another, for every CIO.   In order to allow that tip of the iceberg to get bigger – and not submerged — CIOs must get crafty. They need to find technology solutions to solve the little problems and buy them time to fix the big ones.

About Sheryl Fikse Bunton and AGCO

Sheryl Fikse Bunton became VP and CIO of AGCO in June 2013. Previously, Sheryl was CIO and Senior Vice President of Information Technology Services for Southwire Company responsible for all Southwire information and communications systems.

Prior to joining Southwire in 2010, Fikse Bunton worked with MYTecSoft as general manager for North America and Europe. She has served as Senior Vice President of the industrial finance business unit of AT&T Capital Corporation and has a wide range of consulting experience with companies around the world, including Southwire and other top wire and cable manufacturers.

A graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Fikse Bunton has completed executive development programs at Columbia University’s Graduate Business School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

At AGCO, she is responsible for leading a 500+ global staff involved in strategic project execution and the management of technology services for more than five hundred major systems globally with over 12,000 desktop users.

Since 1990, AGCO has been a market leader in the agricultural industry. With generations of brand experience, our extensive network of independent dealers and service personnel and a commitment to environmental awareness, AGCO continues to provide innovative, high-quality farming solutions around the world.