Getting Trapped in Technical Debt: Sociotechnical Analysis of a Legacy System’s Replacement

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Publication History

Received: February 24, 2020
Revised: March 16, 2021; January 27, 2022; April 22, 2022
Accepted: April 29, 2022
Published Online as Articles in Advance: February 14, 2023
Published Online in Issue: March 1, 2023

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Organizations replace their legacy systems for technical, economic, and operational reasons. Replacement is a risky proposition, as high levels of technical and social inertia make these systems hard to withdraw. Failure to fully replace systems results in complex system architectures involving manifold hidden dependencies that carry technical debt. To understand how a process for replacing a complex legacy system unfolds and accumulates technical debt, we conducted an explanatory case study at a local manufacturing site that had struggled to replace its mission-critical legacy systems as part of the larger global company’s commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) system implementation. We approach the replacement as a sociotechnical change and leverage the punctuated sociotechnical information system change model in combination with the design-moves framework to analyze how the site balanced creating digital options, countering social inertia, and managing (architectural) technical debt. The findings generalize to a two-level (local/global) system-dynamics model delineating how replacing a deeply entrenched mission-critical system generates positive and negative feedback loops within and between social and technical changes at local and global levels. The loops, unless addressed, accrue technical debt that hinders legacy system discontinuance and gradually locks the organization into a debt-constrained state. The model helps managers anticipate challenges that accompany replacing highly entrenched systems and formulate effective strategies to address them.

Additional Details
Author Tapani Rinta-Kahila, Esko Penttinen, and Kalle Lyytinen
Year 2023
Volume 47
Issue 1
Keywords Legacy system, COTS system, IS discontinuance, IS replacement, organizational change, technical debt, PSIC model, design moves, process theory, system dynamics
Page Numbers 1-32
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