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In Practice

System Migrations Need to Start With People

One of the most common traps that organizations fall into is treating system migrations solely as a technology question and overlooking common human pitfalls. As a result, most large-scale system migrations are fraught with unexpected issues, taking longer and costing more than anticipated. Technology itself causes many major headaches, as re-engineering business processes and moving data can bring unexpected consequences, trigger transparency and accessibility issues, and exacerbate compliance or regulatory risks.

There is a better approach. System migrations that start with three people-elements proceed much more smoothly and efficiently. These elements involve focusing early on the end customer, avoiding team fatigue and proactively upskilling teams.

People First, Tech Second

In migrations, the business is generally the final customer or end-user. Hence, there should be a clear vision, communication and collaboration between business and technology teams from the outset. This sounds simple, but system migrations focus largely on the technical and logistical problems of shifting platforms and transferring data, when the task should be approached through a broader lens.

Instead, managers should take a more active role in planning and execution, determining up front which functions are necessary, which data should be migrated, and who will be impacted by replacing or upgrading the systems. This avoids setting the project on a doomed trajectory. For example, one airline spent months trying to extract, transform and load historical flight information, only to scrap the code after the business deemed it unnecessary for the future system. Such moments are easily avoided with the right communication.

Business-driven, rather than technology-driven workshops are one way to prepare sufficiently by gathering the right people to ask the right questions: Which functions are necessary or nice to have? What data is priority? What data is required for business-as-usual activities? What about regulatory requirements? These types of questions require meaningful engagement and will allow leaders to commit the right resources or organize external support, such as industry or legal expertise. Likewise, they establish greater ownership and accountability.

One Fortune 500 company recently attributed the success of its migration to the business being the driving force behind all project planning, clearly defining what it needed before the migration started. This led to better adoption and higher degree of satisfaction with the final system functionality and increased engagement with frontline employees and leadership.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

Alternatively, managers can use a bottom-up data-driven approach to understand the impact. Who uses the data now? Who has been accessing the data historically? Mapping these interaction points can determine which data to shift into the new systems, prioritizing essential and leaving behind “nice-to-have” data. This also reduces the chances of getting into trouble later when data is missing or unavailable.

Vacation Days As a Performance Indicator

System migrations are, in most cases, exhausting. From the initial sprint to post-deployment, meeting milestones can be highly stressful — particularly when the team is working toward a set deployment target and competing for shared resources. Long hours are common, meaning staff have little downtime or respite and often compromise their personal time. This leads to frustration and tension. Leaders should anticipate that after the first six months of the project, teams will exhibit fatigue, lower morale and decreased responsiveness. These can all have adverse effects on the project’s progress.

Taking a people-led approach at the beginning of the project can help avoid wasting time, while improving team structures and planning for the inevitable bumps in the road.

One of the most common reasons for team burnout is underestimating the amount of time a migration project will take. Start from a position with reasonable expectations about timing rather than relying on rough estimates. Failing to invest enough time into developing a proper strategy and plan sets the team up for failure. Projects can also be structured to deliver milestones of success and periods of rest, to re-energize teams on a cadence matching the fatigue cycle.

In long system migration projects, one common pitfall is that teams avoid taking vacation throughout the year, only to find most people need to use accrued leave at the same time, which risks derailing timelines. One company avoided this by including vacation days as a key performance indicator, ensuring that teams spaced their time off evenly. In such cases, it’s important for leaders to support this policy through regular communication, as well as leading by example. Work sentiment surveys can also ensure that the teams feel supported and can operate in an environment of psychological safety when they do feel like they are not getting sufficient down time.

While exhaustion is unavoidable, companies can mitigate these situations, such as taking stress reduction measures, monitoring the mood of the team using weekly pulse check and encouraging teams to join wellness programs.

Cross-Training Can Protect Organizational Knowledge

Large system migration projects can take months to years to accomplish — enough time for key people to move onto new roles or leave the organization entirely. Churn is natural, as the work can be monotonous, and people need to balance tasks with their day jobs. To avoid an unexpected skills gap during or after a system deployment, companies should take a long-term approach to upskilling the team. Likewise, it’s important to have the right incentives in place to keep the team motivated and to clearly communicate that these resources have a role after the migration is completed.

Business leaders should have a contingency plan in mind for every key role, but training and developing your project’s people for multiple roles will ensure more continuity. Take the time to teach a broader cross-section of migration-literacy skills within the business, and ensure the solution vendor proactively shares system knowledge to build the team’s self-reliance post-deployment. By cross-training project resources, firms can accelerate the professional development of their people and mitigate the formation of talent “silos” within project teams. 

One business experienced issues when a team of key people left just after their migration was finished, resulting in a loss of knowledge of the set up and inner workings of their new system. This forced them to rebuild and retrain a new team to extract the maximum value from their technology investment. In contrast, we’ve seen companies preempt this issue by identifying a key cluster of employees to become system experts before the launch, with the vendor being involved in knowledge transfer. This enabled the organization to be more self-sufficient and allowed their people to further improve the new platform without external help.

A People-Led Future

COVID-19 has taken a toll on the time, budgets and resources of many organizations. This leads to short-term thinking around system migration projects and can cause problems later. The scenario is all too familiar: Technology teams take charge without engaging in meaningful dialogue early on with business managers, who are too busy multitasking to scrutinize what is best for users and customers. Significant time is lost on activities of low business value or wasted due to misunderstood requirements. As things don’t work out as planned, teams get demoralized and exhausted, which leads to greater turnover.

Yet, all this waste is easily avoided by taking a people-led approach at the beginning of the project to improve team structures and plan for the inevitable bumps in the road. We have seen some of the largest failures, greatest successes and best turnarounds for such projects, and we’re confident these are the highest leverage points for your project’s success.

Connie Cheung and Ethan Murray also contributed to this piece.

Konstantinos Varsos

Partner and Head of the Manufacturing, Process Operations and MRO at Oliver Wyman

Konstantinos Varsos is a partner and head of the manufacturing, process operations, and MRO practice for the Americas, supporting clients in the transportation and industrial sectors. He specializes in large-scale transformations, ERP system implementations, and post-merger integrations. Konstantinos believes that helping clients throughout their transformation journey is an essential part of our value proposition.

Neil McConachie

Partner at Oliver Wyman

Neil McConachie is a partner in Oliver Wyman’s Dallas office as part of the firm’s Aviation and Digital practice groups, where he focusses on aircraft maintenance, flight operations and advanced analytics related to aircraft lifecycle cost planning. Neil has led multiple cost optimization and large-scale implementation efforts for airlines, OEMs and MROs.

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