Out with the old

"Parallel Operation of Software: Is It A Desirable Software System Transition Technique?"

Rolling out new, increasingly complex financial management systems has been a struggle for most agencies, but it is necessary as older financial systems outlive their usefulness.

Traditional wisdom held that agencies should operate two financial management systems at once: Keep the old system running in case there's a glitch — or failure — in the new one. In fact, the governmentwide body responsible for setting standards for agency financial management systems promoted this dual approach in 1995.

But now, the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program is taking a different tack. According to new JFMIP guidelines, agencies need to move away from legacy financial systems as soon as possible when they are implementing new systems.

The new guidance, issued in a JFMIP white paper, "Parallel Operation of Software: Is It a Desirable Software Transition Technique?," says that operating two systems is expensive, ineffective and may even hinder an agency's ability to shift to a new system.

The earlier JFMIP guidance, contained in the 1995 document, "JFMIP Framework for Federal Financial Management Systems," suggested that running both the new and existing systems reduced risk if the new system did not work. The two systems working in conjunction with one another — referred to as parallel operations — "allows operations to continue in the old system while errors are corrected in the new system," the older document said.

However, times have changed, said Karen Cleary Alderman, executive director of JFMIP.

In the past, agencies moved from one customized financial management system to another. But today, agencies are replacing stovepiped, legacy applications with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) packages that necessitate a more significant business-process reorganization.

"In [a] COTS environment, parallel operations probably is not the best method," Alderman said. It is better to have a well-developed risk-mitigation strategy in place and shift to the new system as soon as possible, she said.

"The cost of parallel operations, and the difficulty in reconciling old and new system results when business processes have been re-engineered, generally make operations an undesirable risk-mitigation strategy," the document concludes.

Instead, agencies should use a "focus your efforts" approach, said Angela Carrington, a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers' Washington, D.C., consulting division. "Resources are already constrained," she said, so agencies should focus on getting the new system to operate correctly and testing that system so they are confident it will work, rather than trying to run two systems.

The legacy systems are typically mainframe-based systems that were highly customized and developed in-house in a stovepiped design. But modern financial management systems integrate data from across the organization.

Furthermore, the risk has shifted away from core financial processing and toward implementation, particularly the integration and enhancement of the system, according to JFMIP.

Modern financial management systems are designed to provide more rich and contextual data than legacy systems. Therefore, it is not accurate to use the legacy as a benchmark for the new system, the JFMIP document said.

In fact, using the legacy system can hinder the transition to the new system. "Inherent in the requirement for parallel operations is an unstated belief that the legacy system produces correct results," according to the white paper. "The legacy system may also contain bad data or have systemic data integrity problems."

Making a commitment to the old system could have unintended consequences in the "change management" efforts, JFMIP says, furthering the resistance to the new system.

"If problems arise in the parallel system operations, the organization will tend to spend resources on keeping the current system operational, rather than on solving problems in the new system," the document suggests.

Instead, JFMIP recommends agencies have a strong plan for testing the new financial management software that will help it mitigate the risks during planning and implementation of a new financial management system.


Avoid the risk

There are dangers in running parallel financial management systems, according to the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program.

* What is the real — data?: With business process re-engineering inherent in most financial management systems, the legacy data may not be accurate.

* Undermining support of the new system: A commitment to the legacy system can raise doubts about the viability of the new system.

* Costs: Parallel operations are complex and require formidable resources, both in funding and staff.

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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