The Oxford dictionary defines agile as able to move quickly and easily. It is a word that is increasingly being used in reference to the challenges facing organisations in the digital age. Digital markets move quickly, they are more dynamic than traditional markets and they can be disrupted more easily. To survive and succeed in the digital world, businesses need to be agile; they need to be able to respond quickly and easily to changing market conditions, customer preferences or competitor activity. Organisations that are not agile will struggle to compete and face an uncertain future.
Technology is fundamental to the digital business. It underpins and enables new business models, products and services. Along with culture, leadership and business process, technology is one of the key factors that determines whether an organisation can be agile. If the organisation’s technology is not agile then it will find life in the digital world very difficult. It’s CIO and IT function will be viewed as obstacles to its digital transformation and they will be bypassed as the rest of the business deals directly with technology vendors who can respond quickly to the organisation’s needs.
Agility must therefore become one of the CIO’s key priorities if they are to avoid being sidelined in the digital age. Agile has long been part of the IT vocabulary as many IT functions have adopted the agile development methodology in favour of (or even alongside) the more traditional waterfall approach. Agile development produces solutions in an iterative, incremental and continuous manner, with regular deliveries of working software being delivered for use by the customer. Requirements can be changed, reprioritised and/or added to at short notice to allow for changing circumstances. It requires daily, close co-operation and collaboration between self-organising teams made up of staff from multiple business functions. It also favours face-to-face communication and co-location of cross-functional teams.
It is easy to see how agile development is well-suited to the digital business. Regular updates and enhancements in response to changing requirements are exactly what is required to stay ahead in the digital market place. However, the principle of agility can be applied to other areas of the organisation’s IT capability:
- Ways of working – wherever possible the IT function’s processes and ways of working need to ensure a quick and easy response to business needs. For example, the process of evaluating and selecting new vendors and technologies must be quick in the digital age. Businesses cannot wait for months while a new solution is assessed by its IT function. The process needs to be agile; pilot deployments should be set up within weeks and in a way that enables a successful pilot to be easily scaled-up to enterprise strength solutions. And decisions around new technologies and solutions must involve all the key stakeholders; other functions are increasingly likely to hold the budget for a new solution so the decision making process needs to be collaborative with the CIO and the IT function playing the role of adviser rather than the gatekeeper. Elsewhere, the general approach to projects is an area where the principles of agile development can be directly applied; smaller, time-boxed projects implemented by self-organised, co-located, cross-functional teams that deliver an agreed set of business outcomes is more in keeping with the digital business than the long, expensive and complex IT projects that have become the norm for most organisations. Deliver small and often has to become the mantra of the CIO and the IT function.
- Resources – the IT resource base has to be agile; the CIO needs to be able to respond quickly and easily to changes in demand for new solutions, enhancements and upgrades. Delaying changes and projects due to shortages in resources and skills is not an option for the digital business. CIOs will therefore need a flexible resource model that can be quickly scaled up or down to cater with short notice changes in business priorities. IT functions will need a mix of permanent staff, contractors, consultants and partners and CIOs will need to identify which skills and roles they need to retain in-house and which they can source from outside the organisation.
- Platform – digital businesses need an agile platform; they need to be able to quickly and easily make changes to their infrastructure and applications, add new components (whether internally or externally provided), take in feeds from external sources and open up parts of their platform or data to customers, partners and suppliers. Agility has to be a key consideration in all decisions about the technology architecture and roadmap; CIOs need to ensure they adopt architectural standards and principles that facilitate a quick and easy response to business needs. Decisions about whether to build, buy or rent need to have agility as one of the key criteria.
Digital businesses have to be agile. And they rely heavily on their IT capability to ensure they can respond quickly and easily to opportunities and threats in their markets. For CIOs to play a key role in the digital futures of their organisation’s agility has to become a common theme that runs through all areas of the IT function and the technology it manages on behalf of the business.