What’s in a Sunset?

What’s in a Sunset?

For many, the image of a sunset evokes fond memories.  A brilliant landscape brought to life with hues of orange and red to mark the end of a fabulous hike with family and friends, and the promise of a new day.

In the technology sector, and for many nonprofit organizations who face an imminent retirement of their trusted, albeit aged, database platforms, the thought of a “sunset” can often evoke other feelings including dread and trepidation.  There are many reasons for a technology sunset; we will explore the two most common here and share some questions that you should ask yourself to determine when it’s time (or past time) to start exploring new alternatives. 

One common cause for a sunset is when organizations pay little attention to the changing world of technology. When a company does not continually research new advancements and develop a product lead to monitor aging technology, both on the front- end user experience and the back-end infrastructure, they will ultimately fail to keep pace with the changes in an industry. Legacy systems tend to fall lax on standards for security compliance and data protection because the company is focused on development and maintenance of their new product set. 

Another common reason for a sunset arises when companies and their respective products are bought and sold.  Usually the acquiring company has no intention to continue with the growth or continuation of a product, and is rather buying the client base to “upgrade” them to a new platform. 

We’ve seen it so many times before and history is repeating itself again…and again. 

On Legacy Systems…

For those organizations that are in a legacy system – one that has not been regularly updated or enhanced over time with your feedback and recommendations – there are two different outcomes that will force your organization to start looking for a new database.   The first and rarer of the two is when the company actually sets a hard retirement date for the platform.  The second requires that you read the tea leaves and determine whether you are getting the service you deserve and are seeing a continual evolution in the platform. If not, these may be telltale signs of a slowly sunsetting platform.

In the waning days of a technology platform, we often hear similar stories about a functional approach to data management, one born out of necessity.  This band-aid approach requires significant staff resources to manually kick-off business rule processes, transfer data between systems, and ETL processes that may not be the most effective use of time. The staff at your organization follows steps by rote, either kept in an old coffee-stained booklet somewhere or, potentially worse, in someone’s head, to pull and push data or to manipulate data externally to the database to drive analysis.   

We were faced with a legacy system that was absent of a reporting suite, and real-time data sync API’s, creating extreme delays in reporting, and the ability to glean on-demand KPI’s detailing essential fundraising analysis.  As our fundraising efforts expanded, simultaneously staff time required to maintain the system exponentially increased.  This resulted in staff frustration due to extensive manual processes, and inefficient use of time, while still not having all the tools needed to see the full picture.

Alan Gordon, Director of Data, Analytics & Operations
National Trust for Historic Preservation

But, at the same time, while we understand that these workarounds and band-aids are certainly not the most efficient use of everyone’s time, the job has gotten done – the mail has gone out on time, gifts have been processed, and things actually can move forward albeit haltingly.

While familiarity breeds contempt (and certainly aging technology platforms do bear the brunt of a lot of frustration around the office water cooler), it also becomes routine.  Your staff becomes familiar doing the extracts in a certain way, or importing data in a familiar sequence.   They know where to look, or at least who to ask, to find what they are seeking. 

Depending on the situation in the dying days of a database, it can often become difficult to get the answer that you might need from the company’s ever-thinning support staff.   What happens when your brilliant staff members have new ideas, and you want to implement new business processes or perhaps add a third-party application to your ecosystem? Usually nothing. Or at best, the idea is tabled at the detriment of the success of the organization, because who wants to invest in a soon-to-be legacy ecosystem?

If the above scenarios sound familiar, here are some questions that you might want to ask yourself:

  • Is my platform holding my organization back from testing new ideas and are we missing out on opportunities?
  • Are you able to suggest upgrades and enhancements to the company that owns your platform and do they follow-through on those suggestions?
  • Is support becoming an issue and are your questions being answered in a timely fashion?
  • Do you lie awake at night and think about the continual investment in back-end security and worry about a data breach?    

If you find yourself asking those questions, making sacrifices of good ideas that you just can’t implement efficiently in your legacy system, it is a classic sign that you need to look for a new CRM. 

Systems that are bought and sold…

Aging and failing systems are one thing, and ultimately a good thing if they are retired, but what about a system that actually does what you need it to do, or worse yet does it well, and then is bought and mothballed.  This scenario is actually a more common model in the age of start-ups and venture capitalist-backed technology companies.  This is not intended as an indictment of capitalist society, merely an observation:  rarely does the acquiring company buy a technology platform to enhance it, upgrade it, and improve upon it.

We had put a lot of time and energy partnering with our CRM company to help improve the baseline product, customize scripts, and build out integrations with other solutions.  We felt like we were making some progress, and then BOOM, we received a forwarded press release that the company had been acquired.  The more we learned about their product plan, the clearer the writings on the wall became for us.  It was past time to start looking for a new solution.

Luke Lam, Sr. Mgr., IT
KQED

When this happens, a repetitive scenario tends to play out.  The acquiring company pays lip service to the system they just purchased, lauding its functionality and often promising to improve upon that technology to bolster the product for the best use of its transitioning client base.  Then, after about two years, they announces that the legacy product is no longer meeting the demands of the market and will be shelved at some uncertain date in the ambiguous future in favor of the newer and shinier object that they have almost finished developing.  The company then sets out to prioritize the clients on the legacy system to determine who should be approached first to sell the idea of transitioning to the new system.

The biggest challenge in this situation is that undoubtedly your legacy system actually has done some critical functions really well for your organization.  For nonprofits, that might include managing source codes, processing batches of gifts, keeping track of moves management stages, or maintaining and modifying pledge schedules.  Then you just have to hope that the new system will learn from the old and also do those functions equally well, or better.  We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that rarely happens across all functional areas of a new technology and certainly not for all legacy clients that were on that platform.

An Inconvenient Disruption (Opportunity)

The disruption caused by a sunset can be devastating to some organizations – besides the frustration, disappointment and angst, there are also immediate and long-term financial and staff impacts when you need to plan your next step.  As soon as you have been notified that your technology platform is going to be sunset, you need to act immediately. 

Why?  Because you are not the only organization that has received that message, so it’s time to start looking for a new solution.   If you wait (which sadly often happens), you could be searching for a new solution at the last minute and find yourself bottlenecked into rushing through an implementation process.  If you wait too long or end up choosing the wrong solution, your organization could potentially be in for a world of trouble.

If you do it right, this can actually be a great opportunity for your organization to take a leap forward, improve your programs, and set the groundwork for organizational growth.  In our next installment in this series we will dive into two key foundations of success that will help your organization intelligently and successfully select a new platform – the needs assessment and the RFP process. 

Until then, may your sunsets be the awe-inspiring kind filled with colors that make you wonder why you don’t take the opportunity to watch more of them.