Our dependance on technology continues to deepen, with IT specialists becoming ever more important. Tom Cheesewright suggests it's the IT team that could provide the managers of the future
Technology’s role in every organisation continues to grow. So does the influence of the people who control that technology.
This includes vendors, like Microsoft, who have in many ways defined the way we work today. It includes outsourced support companies, like Fujitsu and Serco who define many large companies’ technology choices. And it includes the IT team inside an organisation.
In the 90s and even the early 00s, IT teams were seen as providing an almost janitorial function. They were support staff at best, derided in comedies like The IT Crowd. But tech companies have long been led by engineers. Today a successful IT career is becoming a realistic path to the board room of any organisation, such is the importance of technology to operations.
As IT specialists move over to general management, they are bringing management and operations practices with them. This includes workflow automation and ticketing systems, but also agile methods from software development.
‘Agile’ is a broad term for a group of software development practices based on some common principles. Traditionally software developers would define every aspect of a product before starting to build it. Agile development starts with a simple prototype which is then changed and refined until it is considered ready for market.
This evolutionary approach to development does not apply only to software. Its principles can be adapted to making a whole business more agile and capable of adapting to a fast changing market.
Here are three principles adapted from agile development for agile management. How does your business fare on these criteria?
The first thing you need if you are going to evolve a business is feedback on its current performance, and on the impact of any changes made. Many businesses lack the transparency required for decision-makers to be able to see results as they happen. Reporting is often like a game of whispers. The meanings of numbers are distorted as they are filtered through layers of management, and delayed by hierarchical committee structures.
Operating in a truly agile fashion requires high quality reporting of vital information about performance. A limited subset of key metrics that are updated in real time and communicated in a comprehensible format. In many businesses this will only be possible once processes are automated and the data they create are captured electronically.
Mechanisms for change
Once you have evidence for the changes required, you need the means to implement change. Fast. From the outside it looks like many businesses – HMV, Blockbuster - have failed not because they didn’t know that change was coming, but because they failed to respond with alacrity.
When change is required, management needs to be able to act quickly with effect. Product development and service design processes must respond fast. Operational processes must be flexible, as must people.
Success comes down to strong executive power and careful contract design. A willing and engaged workforce that understands the market is a bonus but unfortunately some transformations will simply require less workforce.
Acceptance of change
Most important for making a business agile is an acceptance throughout the organisation that the way things are today is not the way they will always be. That just because you have always done something one way, that it remains the right way to do things, now and in the future. Even if customers are telling you that’s what they still want today, management and staff have to accept evidence to the contrary.
Customers are very good at helping you to optimise an existing product or service. They are not so good at suggesting the leap to a new paradigm.
Ever deeper furrows
Most organisations, of any size, are not agile. They are focused on doing what they do with maximum efficiency, ploughing the same furrow ever deeper. Getting an organisation and its people out these furrows and into a mode of agile thinking is never easy. But it's a vital step if the organisation is to survive.