These days, it seems every company is seeking the velocity and agility in delivering products and services that digital-native leaders like Airbnb, Netflix and Uber are known for.

That’s why businesses around the world are investing in digital transformation strategies to reach new markets, improve interactions with customers and create operational efficiencies. 

Unlike the digital natives, however, organizations born before the Internet typically don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch with their IT infrastructures. Their enterprises usually are cluttered with older, transaction-based systems that are infeasible or impractical to rip out because they still serve mission-critical business processes and reflect substantial investment in money and skills over the course of years.

Many companies struggle with the resulting conundrum: How can they deliver on a digital transformation blueprint when legacy systems continue to do so much of the heavy lifting in the enterprise?

Success in addressing this legacy landscape is crucial for companies that want to be more agile competitors in today’s ultra-fast-paced market.

So how should they tackle the challenge? These four steps provide a framework for getting started:

Conduct a maturity assessment. Most large enterprises are composed of huge numbers of applications that were brought into service over the course of years. Many were custom-built and developed independently of each other in a fragmented fashion. They include everything from CRM and HR systems to customer-facing billing and service-related applications. It’s important to get a handle on this jumble.

As a first step, an organization should carefully evaluate its degree of technology maturity across the enterprise. Where does every application stand in terms of cloud adoption, virtualization, etc.? Which are far along on the path to digital transformation, which are partially along and which are nowhere?

The assessment will reveal insights about which legacy systems do their work well, with no reason to change them, and which can and should be retired and replaced with modern substitutes. 

This kind of detailed inventory is a necessary beginning because many or most companies simply do not know. Think of digital transformation as a journey, and the maturity assessment as the map. As author Reif Larsen wrote, “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there.”

Take bite-size pieces. Map in hand, organizations then should look for opportunities to use the latest digital innovations to upgrade applications and business processes. Don’t think of digital transformation as a “Big Bang” but rather as a series of surgical strikes. 

Start with low-hanging fruit: legacy applications that are particularly ripe for modernization. Then move on to others. Rinse and repeat.

Rely on experts. “He who represents himself has a fool for a client,” Abraham Lincoln said. It’s the same with digital transformation. Few companies have the in-house expertise to pull it off successfully, so they shouldn’t hesitate to rely on third-party experts who can understand your situation and goals and have best-practice knowledge to partner with you on execution.

With digital transformation, it’s helpful to have a “tour guide” with the expertise to navigate change without disrupting ongoing processes

Automate. By using automation, companies can make mission-critical legacy applications far more efficient. For example, many organizations rely on Oracle packaged applications like Oracle Financials and Oracle Retail, and endure the tedious, month-end close process built into that software. Automation can lighten the load by making the processes non-manual and repeatable while simultaneously limiting downtime. The same is true of other business applications like SAP.

By following these four steps, businesses can smartly move forward on a program to modernize their legacy systems without disrupting the crucial services those systems provide.

Older companies will always be challenged to move as quickly as the digital natives, but the goals of digital transformation – speed of innovation, always-available services and web scale – are well within their reach.