How to Build an Agile IT Department

How to Build an Agile IT Department

You can't be a little bit agile. You can't be agile in one area and not in another. You need agility in staffing, architecture, budgeting, governance, vendor relations and programming. And if that sounds like a lot, well, it is. But it's worth it.

Agility in Action

  • Teams to work on different parts of a software program concurrently
  • Setting up a governance team to monitor an outsourcing contract enabled daily tracking of metrics and early warning of problems

When David Zink became Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island's CIO in July 2002, he found an IT department that couldn't get out of its own way. Like a rugby league team that can drive to the 10-metre line but can't score, the IT department could never quite finish its implementations. There was a lack of direction and a lack of organization. Different groups worked on similar projects for different departments, solving the same problems over and over, and no one could tell Zink why. IT just jumped whenever the business units asked it to, without even asking how high.

Not surprisingly, project deadlines were always slipping and departments such as sales and marketing began pursuing their own solutions. That, of course, produced a proliferation of unintegrated systems and applications.

It was a vicious cycle, says Zink, as IT was pulled away from new projects to cope with outlier apps and systems that it could neither support efficiently nor integrate effectively.

IT, and the business, had become the opposite of agile.

Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island's (BCBS of RI) then-CEO, Ronald Battista (who stepped down last May and was replaced by James Purcell), and COO Richard Farias knew that the IT department had problems and offered Zink carte blanche support in transforming it. "If there's one key to becoming an agile IT department," says Zink, "it's top-management support." Without it, he says, the company's various departments would forever be fighting over IT resources and further fragmenting IT's focus.

So Zink wasn't interested in incremental change. He didn't want to rock the boat; he wanted to sink it and build a new one. He began the transformation by firing vendors that weren't providing support, leeching the company's budget. He outsourced day-to-day IT operations, including the help desk and application development, to Perot Systems. He established a governance organization for monitoring the contract with Perot and developed an architectural plan that would migrate BCBS of RI from its ageing, closed, proprietary systems to an open architecture. He brought in new project management methodologies. He introduced discipline to the processes of developing business cases for IT projects and defining requirements for new applications.

"We took on the whole world of IT and tried to improve our capabilities across the board," he says.

"Now we have a working relationship with everyone," says Zink. "We have input on everything. We're able to deliver much faster because we're totally integrated with the business."

Zink understood that to restore the business-side's confidence in IT and make his department agile, he had to look at a broad spectrum of IT functions. BCBS of RI and the other organizations in this article reworked different aspects of their IT departments - including staffing, architecture, software development, vendor management and budgeting - to make them more nimble, responsive and, ultimately, valuable to the enterprise.

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