How well an enterprise can change determines whether change is a threat or an opportunity.
Many enterprises think of themselves as agile only to discover that when they turn the steering wheel they are driving a sluggish school bus and not the F1 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. Why? Because agility is a characteristic that defines the quality of your enterprise - for example, how ready your organization is to launch and support a new product. Further agility is increased or decreased by management actions and attitudes - for example, investing in skills and knowledge enables the workforce to become more flexible, hence the enterprise more agile.
The challenge for CEOs and CIOs is to get the right level of agility at the right time.
The CIO must recognize and reposition IS's role in enterprise agility. In many enterprises there is a tension between agile attitudes 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 IT is rigid, unresponsive and at odds with the enterprise's desire for agility.
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.
There are three agility evils: rigidity, complexity and lack of visibility. Fortunately there are ways to reduce them.
First, the CIO can help build adaptability into business and IS processes, and skill bases - which deliver competitive advantage. Second, the CIO can help simplify business and IS processes, and commodity assets to remove them as obstacles and free up capital for change. Third, the CIO can ensure that the enterprise harnesses the power of information to enable better decisions and improve business operations at all levels.
Create adaptability in sources of competitive advantage. 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 involves technical skills related to new areas, but also leadership skills to help proactivity 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 the 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 drive 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.
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