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The Struggle to Define Agility

The Struggle to Define Agility

In the first and final analysis, agility is about timely and cost-effective implementation. Full stop. Planning is nice. Analysis is good. Governance is groovy. But agility means action. Agility implies both the capacity and capability to act. Now. Immediately. Real-time

Successful companies know there are times when agility is called for and times when it's not.

I recently moderated a panel on "the agile enterprise" at MIT's recent CIO Summit. Good fun. My CIO panellists were sharp, witty and articulate champions of agility. They each valued business impact over technical cleverness and all saw themselves as full partners in the task of defining their companies' futures.

The catch? One CIO argued that greater agility demanded greater centralization; another insisted greater decentralization and delegation defined enterprise agility. A British CIO on my panel asserted that agility means ever-exquisite responsiveness to business needs; an American CIO declared that agile IT should inspire and enable greater business-unit agility. I kept waiting for someone to mutter: "Agility means never having to say you're sorry."

In other words, agility — like that other perennial business buzzword, quality — seems to mean something different to everyone. There are no "Six Sigma Agility" black belts yet. No doubt there will be when the consulting market is ripe. Yet, when the same word means different things to different people, confusion invariably dominates the discussion.

Whatever agility is supposed to mean, opposing it reeks of objecting to mom, apple pie and quality enhancement. That said, a rigorous friendly chat about agility — accent on "rigorous" — might help the CIO community determine what definition makes sense for the enterprise. Poorly defined agility may be worse than no agility at all.

In the first and final analysis, agility is about timely and cost-effective implementation. Full stop. Planning is nice. Analysis is good. Governance is groovy. But agility means action. Agility implies both the capacity and capability to act. Now. Immediately. Real-time. That doesn't mean the enterprise has to instantaneously act or react — only that it has the power to do so.

Agility without implementation is like finance without numbers; you might get the essential concepts right, but there is absolutely no way you can deliver business value without it. One might as well expect a sumo wrestler to win an Olympic Gold in the pole vault. Sumo wrestlers can, in fact, be quite agile. But it's not the agility you find flinging itself over a bar six metres high.

That's why I laugh — OK, I'm lying — that's why I smirk when companies with some of the more Teutonic ERP systems publicly proclaim their commitment to agility. I'm sorry, but have you ever tried to subtly — or profoundly — modify an ERP-enabled business process? I have. Agile is not the best word to describe those efforts. On the contrary, global ERP systems — you know who you are! — are explicitly designed not to be agile.

Their institutional strength comes not from flexibility, but rigidity; they're steel and glass, not bamboo. Have you noticed that there aren't many Fortune 1000 companies whose global headquarters are built from bamboo? If organizations truly wish to be more flexible, why do they invest so much in inflexible systems? Are they truly that naive? No. Clearly what matters is consistency and reliability as opposed to just-in-time agility. Agility and consistency - flexibility and reliability - are never the best of business friends. They can't be. Organizations with ERP systems can't be agile around anything that involves modifying the ERP system.

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