Many enterprises think of themselves as agile only to discover that when they really need to maneuver quickly they are driving a clapped-out four-cylinder rather than the Formula One racing car they thought they invested in.
Agility, the most important enterprise survival mechanism, is something you build. It’s not something you can buy ‘out of the box’, despite what technology vendors and consultants might say.
The challenge for CEOs and CIOs is to get the right level of agility at the right time.
In many enterprises there is a tension between agility and IT, as new initiatives contrast with the realities of application development and infrastructure cost reductions. This tension all too often leads to the view that IT is rigid, unresponsive and at odds with enterprise agility.
Freeing up processes
Astute CIOs recognize that IT is often the first point in time when strategies and plans developed ‘out of the box’ or in a constraint-free environment face the reality of implementation. Yet CEOs and strategists are surprised when new plans that they thought could be implemented in weeks require months of application changes and preparation.
The CIO must distinguish between processes, capabilities and assets that are, or could be, sources of competitive advantage, and those that are not.
For these processes, the CIO’s imperative is to free and enable the business from restrictions that prevent it from exploiting opportunities as they arise. The restrictions may lie with processes, staff skills, organizational structure, supporting systems or a combination of all these things.
What steps does the CIO take to free these processes, once identified?
First, build IS staff technical and leadership skills based on the most likely and most important changes. This not only involves technical skills related to new areas, but also leadership skills to help proactiveness in the agility agenda.
To achieve this, link training plans to the program-management process. Next, ensure that IS processes are up to the job. Agility must be built into design and test processes in a repeatable and ideally optimizing way. The owners of these processes must ensure that potential changes in scale of operation, organizational structure or technology will not break them. For example, enterprises that embark on their first offshoring of part or all of their IS processes feel considerable strain. Beyond the scope of IS, change management and project management are common agility bottlenecks.
Also, build an architecture that allows best-of-breed components in areas such as ERP and CRM, without compromising architectural integrity. Finally, the CIO must push for commodity components to be isolated and standardized. By standardizing the commoditized pieces and giving adaptability to the genuine sources of differentiated advantage, the enterprise gets the best of all worlds.
Communicate agility issues
Communicating IS issues related to agility is another important ingredient in the mix, but it can be tough; it’s an abstract topic, and there are often more urgent issues in enterprise governance bodies.
Agility-focused CIOs describe IS architecture in business language. They lay things out like a city planning guide, making clear what is possible within the framework, and what would be an exception, or slower and more costly.
They also build demonstrations and pilots and run innovation workshops to communicate IT’s possibilities, constraints and agility pain points.
CIOs in agile enterprises play multiple roles in keeping the enterprise in racing form. These CIOs are at different times the lead engineer determining the Formula 1 car’s stress points and design; the pit crew leader, orchestrating what needs to be done to keep the car in the race; and the racing-sponsor advocate, explaining how best to get to the next level of performance.
Your contribution to enterprise agility is based on how well you can play your part in these three roles.
–Andrew Rowsell-Jones is vice president and research director for Gartner’s CIO Executive Programs.