Deconstructing Agility: IT as a Sustainability Enabler

By Sheppard Narkier September 30, 2014

Reflecting on the Future

As we reflect upon the trends that emerged out of VMworld, some enabling technology has clearly grabbed the imagination and headlines. Among the most intriguing are the software-defined data center and its flexible infrastructure, which can be used to develop relevant applications in a more agile manner. The linkage between the more flexible infrastructure and the more agile approach requires some serious investment and rethinking in terms of internal processes and skills to take advantage of what the industry has termed DevOps.

Anyone who has had to develop software using archaic methods and tools—while fighting business analysts, compliance, procurement, operations and QA every step of the way—will easily embrace a new way of thinking. I have often referred to this type of exercise as running a marathon in a pool of Jell-O.

Many business executives feel their own version of frustration as well, not seeing the value of their investment as markets move and they are left in the dust, weighed down by legacy environments. Their constant cry is “I spent the money on the technology, why isn’t IT meeting my technology needs?”

Earlier this year I wrote a blog about IT’s role in fostering sustainable advantage including agility. The blog was prescriptive at a 10,000 foot level. What I will explore here is the meaning of agility as perceived by various stakeholders from two different cultures (IT and the business), who think in fundamentally different ways.

A Snapshot of Agility

When speaking to business executives, agility means reacting to all kinds of market and regulatory  changes by delivering new products and services faster; often by leveraging what has been done before, but organizing teams and processes in different ways. IT wants to “do things quicker” to please the business, but this is a challenge given the difficulty imposed by legacy environments. In either cultural view, these goals have to be supported by investment in technical products which is the easiest most transparent of efforts. The more difficult, less obvious, messy investment must be placed in changing various well-entrenched processes and augmenting people’s skill sets. And scariest of all, the culture that surrounds all of this activity must change.

The recurring problem with investments in agility-oriented programs is that people think of them as monolithic tasks. Instead “agility” is composed of many highly dependent factors that need to be balanced as they are implemented. Let’s look at two major agility drivers:  business performance agility and time-to-market agility. I have consistently advocated that effective use of IT starts with a business demand view, hence the order of the list below:

Business Performance Agility (BPA). In essence this is how business can predict, lead, or react to market changes that are consistent with their brand, client demographics, risk tolerance, and cost concerns.

    • How the business measures BPA. The business should realize better products and services, enhanced employee productivity, and sensible cost scaling (including IT) that can be correlated with business growth.
    • How the business measures IT support for BPA. IT’s ability to show a justifiable ROI for IT investment; effectively leveraging the organization’s collective information and services by providing cost-effective IT platforms that enhance the firm’s responsiveness, market understanding, and ultimately competitiveness.
    • How the business feels IT’s impact. Employees and consumers experience better usability, better accessibility and support, while enjoying increased information sharing and knowledge generation through a variety of collaboration tactics, all focused on unlocking hidden value.

Time-to-market Agility (TTMA). This metric characterizes IT’s ability to be flexible, responsive, and innovative in support of rapid business transformation necessitated by the business’s quest to maintain its competitive edge by being sensitive and reactive to fluid market conditions.

    • How the business and IT need to measure TTMA. There are two critical agility domains that need consideration:
        • IT is measured by faster integration of applications and information, speedier introductions of new applications, changes to existing ones, and rule updates
        • IT is measured by faster integration of applications and information, speedier introductions of new applications, changes to existing ones, and rule updates
        • IT needs to be able to meet rapidly changing business needs by applying new and/or innovative technology that keeps the firm competitive

Implementing Agility – The Myriad Tactics

The next natural question any CIO or CTO would ask is where to start since there is only so much budget, time, and risk that can be absorbed in a single year. At Adaptivity we encouraged our clients to dig deeper, so that we could help them understand the investment strategy required to enhance a relevant sense of agility per business unit.

Business Performance Agility Tactics. The tactics that can be used fall into several broad categories.  Each are important but will vary in need depending upon which part of the business value chain a business unit serves. The reason is simple:  other drivers such as risk and cost compete to varying degrees with agility. Since this comes down to investment, balanced choices must be made.

    • Use of IT. A significant “branding” issue by which IT is judged by the business and is often found lacking, making subsequent investment discussions more difficult.
        • Application Usability:  intuitive UI’s, flexible processes, sensible error handling
        • Environment/ Systems Usability:  investments in resiliency, seamless access across multiple systems
        • Accessibility / Use of External IT Resources:  includes comprehensive mobility and flexibility for partners and suppliers
        • Workflow Enablement:  turning batch processing and email intensive workflow into a distributed easy-to-use workflows
        • User Enablement:  user self-service in an enterprise application storefront
        • User Support:  proactive monitoring of potential or recurring problem areas for heavily used applications so that customer support is aware of these problems before the users start complaining; provides a seamless point of control, without cross-departmental finger pointing.
    • Information Leverage.  Comprehensive integrated search that includes structured and unstructured file search, along with seamless conference and workstream integration.
        • Information / Knowledge Sharing:  sharing and creation that minimizes redundancy and maximizes ease of use
        • Information Accessibility / Format Conversion:  with advent of big data analysis, the ability to push raw data and pull results becomes heightened
        • User Collaboration:  multiuser cross-region collaboration through numerous means, including agile project tracking
        • Information / Reference Data Changes:  a federated view of enterprise data that streamlines data stewardship and enhances the ability to find necessary data with semantic aids
    • Return on IT. This is a major bone of contention that is hard to quantify across two different cultures.
        • User Productivity:  employees, partners and consumers get work done right the first time with minimal errors
        • Business Process Efficiency:  process changes are aided, not impeded by technology
        • Delivery of Business Service / Product:  deliveries can be planned with confidence that the dates will be made
        • Quality of Business Service / Product:  the services and products that IT can control enhance the brand
        • IT Cost Scalability with Business:  modular, traceable costs lead to predictable cost projections for business growth and lulls

Time to Market Agility Tactics. Some of these tactics reinforce those that were used for BPA above. Therefore, some tactics cannot be employed in isolation, but need support, and thus a different level of investment.

    • Flexibility of IT. This is not just perception, but needs a rethinking of how IT processes should work in a modern connected world
        • Application Integration:  a move to micro services architecture which is  a specialization of service-oriented architecture (SOA)
        • Information Integration:  Holistic virtualization of data in a federated model, that allows for source, location, and format independence
    • Responsiveness of IT. An improved perception of IT as being more responsive to changing needs and more willing to enable better business goal alignment.
        • Speed of Application Change:  continuous integration supported by a commitment to DevOps
        • Speed of Application Introduction:  streamlined requirements processing and minimum viable product vetting
        • Speed of Change to Business Rules:  a conscious effort to externalize business logic into parameterized rules that can be easily tested before rollout
    • IT innovation. The fact that IT has gone beyond an “ivory tower” mentality of looking at technology with no goals in mind. A commitment to partnership with the business where it is understood that the innovation needs a business context to be valuable.
        • Ability to Meet Business Needs:  a conscious effort to envision a consequence-based strategy, where IT can be an enabler of strategic change through innovation
        • Ability to Apply New Technology:  IT’s ability to create a temporal, tiered landscape of technology adoption based upon clear business goals (that is, what does the innovation landscape look like 12, 18, 24, or 36 months out?)

Agility’s Bottom Line

There is only so much time, money, energy, and opportunity to expend in the pursuit of agility. So the confusion ends when the business and IT organizations can agree on what the most important goals are. EMC has proven services and a systematic decision support platform that enables executives to cut through noise and make clear decisions about the company’s future.

About Sheppard Narkier

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