Does Your Organization Suffer from Digital Frankenstein Syndrome?

Digital Product Strategy

A surprising amount of the prospective new projects we hear about start with the same pain point. That pain point? The organization’s digital suite – website, CRM, LMS, document management, web app or mobile app, and anything else that comprises how they use technology to do their work – has slowly turned into a Frankenstein’s monster. By that, I mean they’re now dealing with a semi-redundant, ineffective collection of disparate items not designed to work together, and the cracks are showing.

I call that Digital Frankenstein Syndrome.

What are the Symptoms?

Digital Frankenstein Syndrome (DFS) reveals itself through a collection of symptoms:

  1. An unbearably slow platform
  2. An out-of-date, security-risk-addled platform that can’t be updated or everything will break
  3. Staff having to manage multiple sets of the same information – for example, client contact lists
  4. Routine, manual data migration that could be automated
  5. Multiple people sharing the same login credentials for various software solutions because the cost per user isn’t scalable
  6. Exorbitant training costs – or a lack of training overall – because there are so many different systems
  7. Managing a disproportionate amount of customer service calls
  8. Managing multiple digital service providers, with the lines of responsibility between them growing more and more unclear

If you have any of the above symptoms, your organization is likely suffering from DFS – or on its way. The good news is that there’s a way to reverse it. But before we get to the solution, let’s discuss how we got here in the first place.

How Digital Frankenstein Syndrome Progresses

DFS is the collective onset of issues that arise when an organization continually takes shortcuts or quick fixes with regard to their digital infrastructure. There is no digital strategy, or digital transformation strategy. Cobbling together SaaS solutions, patching functionality into a website with a never-ending list of off-the-shelf plugins, poorly documented software decision-making that gets lost when someone leaves an organization – all of these items, and more, add up to a house-of-cards situation that will collapse at some point if action isn’t taken.

There is a common story to how organizations end up at this point though – a series of stages they go through. Those stages usually look like this:

The early stage. The organization has a big wishlist and a budget that doesn’t quite let them meet that wishlist elegantly. So, some initial, acceptable shortcuts are made – after all, the organization might not be that big, or the initiative is new, so there is a need to validate before spending their way to the moon. The outcomes here are usually choosing a couple of cheap or free SaaS or plugin solutions: think CRMs, WordPress plugins that add functionality, and the like.

The middle stage. Multiple new requests or ideas have come in: perhaps requests like adding donations to a nonprofit site, or syncing a contact list from a website to a CRM, or adding online learning to a pre-existing platform, or adding digital signing to a web application. It’s getting trickier, but the organization can still patch together some of the functionality with 3rd party extensions and SaaS solutions – usually, however, this is done without looking at the long-term impact of those decisions.

The problem stage. This is where Frankenstein’s monster wakes up, and the organization is paying the piper for the steadily shakier, cobbled-together suite that their organization runs on. You’ll notice some or all of the symptoms I outlined earlier, and there is no easy fix. You might be in the situation where you have 3 sets of contact lists, a slow site with a million plugins, plus clients with website authentication credentials as well as LMS authentication credentials, plus 6 providers you have to wrangle. If that’s you, I’m sorry.

Why Do Organizations Get to The Problem Stage?

The simplest way to put it is this: in organizations with DFS, nobody in the organization took a step back and weighed the short-term – the convenience of quick solutions – against the long-term.

Basically, the decisions were only ever about reacting, not about strategy.

If we dig even deeper, organizations that suffer from DFS are usually late to the digital transformation game; they undervalue the benefits of elegant digital solutions, and in turn, often put the wrong people in the drivers’ seat of their organization’s technology strategy. Sometimes, there isn’t any accountability or leadership for digital strategy at all.

How to Start Solving Your Digital Infrastructure Problems

If you’re staring at the screen realizing your organization is suffering from DFS, don’t worry: it’s not the end of the world. Here are a few steps you can take to start solving the problem.

Make a Business Case

Solving your problematic technology stack will be a project, and if you want to do it right, it will likely be a somewhat sizeable one. With that in mind, start with a business case – because any reasonably sized project should require a justification for doing the work, spending the time, and incurring the cost.

What that business case looks like – its depth, focus, and the like – depends largely on the scale of the proposed work as well as your specific organization and the role you play within it. Take a crack at mapping out some KPIs and business outcomes, and make sure to ask yourself: what would I need to see in order to spend my organization’s capital on this project?

Make an Ideal End State

If you have the go-ahead – or if you want to include this piece in your business case – take a crack at an Ideal End State. Meaning: how will your technology stack look and work if you were to design it from scratch to be an ideal, elegant system?

I don’t mean for you to start making prototypes or designing interfaces. Instead, map out what the system is like now, aka the Current State. This can be a list, or diagram, answering questions like: What platforms are there? What technology do they run on? What primary business objectives do they perform? How do they connect to other systems, if at all?

Then do the same thing, but look into the future. What does the Ideal End State look like? Do you want to simply consolidate your CRM with your donations and invoicing requirements? Is it more than that?

Remember, this Ideal End State can be a working draft – you don’t need to get it perfect, and it should change as you begin to work with your digital partner (if you want help understanding how to vet and choose the right provider, we wrote about that too). You’ll gain more information over time with regards to the cost, timeline, and feasibility of each piece in your Ideal End State, which will likely change what form that ultimately takes.

illustratoin of person sitting on document that is collecting data

Digital Transformation & Closing the Gap

Once you have your Current State and your Ideal End State, the space in the middle is the gap.

Ultimately, the approach for closing that gap over time is your digital transformation strategy, or at the very least your digital improvement strategy. It is your approach for solving your organization’s case of Digital Frankenstein Syndrome. It could be a multi-year strategy for replacing multiple disparate pieces of custom software with a comprehensive multi-suite custom software tool; it could be a much shorter timeline for consolidating multiple SaaS offerings into a single multi-solution piece of off-the-shelf software. It could also be anywhere in-between.

As you progress into solving your digital infrastructure challenges, here are a couple of pro-tips to help you out:

  1. Look for simple consolidation opportunities – for example, bringing your invoicing and donations and email marketing into your CRM platform.
  2. Pick actively developed platforms that are extensible and have APIs
  3. Think about what your single source of truth, in terms of data, should be
  4. Try to avoid vendor lock-in (with proprietary custom systems) and technological ceilings
  5. Make a multi-year, prioritized consolidation and replacement plan
  6. Implement it over time – don’t try and do it all at once

Lastly, unless you have a robust internal team, you’re going to want to align yourself with a strong development team that can help not only build what you need, but consult on what to build and then support it.

Rest assured: you can have an elegant, stable digital infrastructure for your organization – one that sets you up for scale, and gives you a competitive advantage. It won’t happen tomorrow, and it might not be perfect, but if you take the right steps it will be much better than a Frankenstein’s monster.

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