Unraveling the Impact of Technical Debt on Human Services Organizations

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Technical Debt, or tech debt, is an accumulation of legacy systems and sub-optimal technology solutions, as well as technology shortcuts taken to save money, and time, or overcome a knowledge gap. It’s inevitable for most organizations, as there is always more work to do than time to do it. However, taking on too much technical debt will catch up to you. What seemed like a short-term gain for one project stacks debt toward another – eventually leading to even more work. For human services organizations that are already budget and resource-constrained, the consequences can be severe.

Cascading Impact on Projects

technical debt bolder

Consider the decision to skip an upgrade to a server platform to save time for the IT team. The repercussions may sound minimal at first, but when a Case Management System (CMS) software update is required, you may discover that you must upgrade the server first. Now a decision needs to be made: Do you spend time on the server upgrade now, increasing the time needed to accomplish the software update? Or do you hold off on the software update altogether? The first option addresses the technical debt lingering in the environment but delays the software project. The latter decision begins to stack new debt on top of old.

Now consider an outage that has occurred on your Records Management System. Then your technical debt is due. Before you can address the outage, you need to upgrade the CMS, which can’t be done until the server platform is upgraded. This ‘stacking’ situation can compound your time to recovery and even impact an organization’s ability to support clients. While this may seem far-fetched, the reality is that these impacts are felt regularly, and often considered an IT failure, when they are really the result of poor business decisions.

Amplifying Risks to Uptime and Data Security

Technical debt can also amplify cybersecurity risks. When a conscious choice is made to ignore critical procedures necessary to support technology, it can save time and money but leave security holes throughout the organization that make it easier for cybercriminals to take advantage.

A cyber incident at a human services organization can be devastating. In addition to the lost productivity involved when attempting to resolve the incident, there are also the costs of bringing on outside resources to handle the breach. There are also the costs associated with liability for possessing PII/PHI and the potential fines. If a swift recovery is not possible, the organization will be unable to provide much-needed client services, leading to a damaged reputation and loss of trust by existing and potential clients. At the end of the day, the interest payments on technical debt can be steep.

Mitigating the Burden of Technical Debt

What can a human services organization do to avoid technical debt? Here are three best practices.

Know Your Environmenttechnical debt technology maintenance

Mapping business processes to technological processes will help you understand what dependencies exist between systems. It will also help you understand which process might be impacted during an outage, as well as who needs to be informed and who you can go to for help. Building this type of documentation and then maintaining it is usually the last step in a project and is often trimmed from the schedule, contributing to technical debt. It takes discipline to push these over the finish line, but all the hard work will pay off in the end as you work to plan and successfully execute technology initiatives.

Establish Recurring Maintenance Windows for Your IT Environment

This allows for recurring maintenance activities, software updates/deployment, and routine testing. Build in enough time each cycle to do proper testing of your changes so you are confident in the results. Follow a strong change readiness process to ensure your organization is prepared and ready for the interruption to its regular work processes. This maintenance will establish a timeframe that the organization will become accustomed to and can schedule around. It can also remove any perceived barriers preventing your IT department from performing much-needed updates to control technical debt.

Develop a Technology Roadmap

Conduct a holistic assessment of your IT strategy and identify the opportunities, risks and gaps facing the organization.  The outcome of the assessment should result in an IT roadmap or plan of action to address the needs identified during this process. Pairing this roadmap with your IT governance process will provide the visibility necessary for your stakeholders to properly prioritize the most critical and impactful technical debt items, budget for upcoming costs related to lifecycle management, and communicate throughout the organization.

Partnering for Successtechnical debt technology roadmap

Almost any decision to ‘punt’ on a technology solution has the potential to add red in your ledger. Need help getting started? Hartman’s experienced, industry-aligned IT leaders can help you toward a path to manage your technical debt and avoid many of the pitfalls associated with it. Contact us today to set up a free consultation.  

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