COBOL and Digital Transformation

The concept of “Digital Transformation” seems to be everywhere on the Internet lately and is the new catchphrase. The term has also frequently been paired with COBOL. As a result, I wanted to take a deeper look into what that might mean to business and the people involved.

What is Digital Transformation?

According to Red Hat, Digital Transformation “is the process of fundamentally changing something using digital tools and describes adopting technology and—potentially—cultural changes to improve or replace whatever existed before”.

Similarly, The article, 4 Types of Digital Transformation, organizes the idea nicely into Business Process, Business Model, Domain, and Cultural/Organizational categories. This is a detailed discussion of converting processes by introducing newer technologies and using these new technologies to update traditional business models and create new markets.

What I am understanding from these descriptions is that, essentially, what Digital Transformation means is modernizing your existing processes, whatever those may be.

The Current Way of Thinking:

How can COBOL, as a 60-year-old language, fit in with the idea of introducing new technologies? Bartolik (2020), in the article COBOL Forms the Basis for Digital Transformation, discusses how COBOL is the foundation and the core that operates 70% of the world’s transaction processing systems. The article further cites statistics from a Microfocus 2020 Press Release where COBOL-connected respondents from 40 different countries were surveyed. Of those who responded, 63% indicated that they would improve their existing COBOL systems in 2020, and 70% would prefer to modernize them rather than replace them. In terms of the modernization strategy, 92% felt that their COBOL applications were strategic.

These results indicate that organizations having existing COBOL applications would be open to digitally transforming their existing COBOL systems.

COBOL + New Technologies = Digital Transformation:

The article, Why COBOL Modernization Should be a Priority and How to Make it Happen, provides a summarized approach to integrating COBOL with the Cloud and Mobile Apps to access Host-based processing and data. In other words, keep the back-end COBOL processing and data access layers and connect them up with newer technologies on the front end. They see updating Mainframe legacy systems, such as COBOL, as vital in this era of Digital Transformation.

From an application programmer perspective, it sounds like a good organizational strategy to leverage the backend COBOL applications that have been successfully used for years while giving the users the benefit of an updated frontend experience.

Some Challenges:

A big question in all of this though is the security of the data. The financial institutions, such as banks and insurance companies, and the government departments that run COBOL systems will have to ensure the safety of the data being displayed and processed with the new technologies. It will mean cultural change as well as technological change. Digital Transformation is not a strategy to be taken on lightly.

What do you think this will mean to the jobs of legacy programmers? What will be the potential impact of cultural change on traditional organizational infrastructures?