Agile in the Financial Times, Summer School, Day 18

I enjoyed my first business trip for August today – Edinburgh to Manchester and back again. And, contrary to some corporate travel policies, I returned home on a business class ticket – how did that happen? Business class afforded me the luxury of access to the BMI lounge at Manchester airport…where I picked up a copy of today’s Financial Times.

The Business Life Summer School series revolved around the subject of “Technology is the secret of an agile advantage”. Naturally, the word “agile” caught my eye.

The article itself was written by Mohan Sawhey, Tribune Professor of Technology and Director, Center for Research in Technology and Innovation, Kellogg School of Management.

It opened with:

“Today’s changeable markets require companies to value flexibility of efficiency and speed over scale”

This is rather reminiscent of the Agile Manifesto. Being responsive to change is the key driver here, if you are able to adapt your business direction, your product or your services such that they match market or customer needs, you will gain a competitive advantage. And how do you do that? Well, as Mohan says, “sense-and-respond” (responding to change over following a plan) organisational models that promote “modularity” can achieve this. In the software world, this is of course, iterative development.

Of course, Mohan’s mention of XML also caught my eye. With XML in the mainstream now, Mohan’s comments serve to firm home the huge benefits that XML gives us today. Yes, it is a really good mechanism for the development of agile IT systems. Mention of decoupling IT systems into layers (presentation and data are mentioned) proved to be a draw too. That said, the information Mohan presented, whilst correct, is a little over-used – sometimes people need to be told and told again before the good stuff sinks in I guess.

Modularity enables agility

Mohan explained that the key to “agile” is modularity [of products and IT systems] and decoupling of business processes and value chains, the latter might be seen to relate to the Agile Manifesto’s “individuals and interactions over processes and tools“. In other words, business processes should be placed far away from the associated value, i.e. don’t throttle the front-end service that adds most of the value by embedding a process overhead into the equation.

Increased modularity allows business processes to be swapped out, or “plug’n’play” as Mohan notes – this is similar to “Working software over comprehensive documentation“. Of course, we’re all used to modularisation when it comes to software development, it makes sense. And object-oriented design takes us further down the modular “plug’n’play” route. Leading on from this, modularisation helps us focus on the front-end value-add products and services, thus we are able to spend more time enjoying customer collaboration over contract negotiation (where contract negotiation includes all of the internal red-tape too).

However, the key take-away for me was found the last paragraph of the article:

Creating an agile enterprise is a transformation that needs to being at the top, with the leadership of the company. And it needs to begin with a questioning of the fundamental beliefs that drive the company.

The agile enterprise is risky to manage – you need to give control and ownership to partners…

Finally, Mohan’s box-out drummed it home:

Companies that have learnt to exploit technology can respond more flexibly to new trends and threats than their competitors (re-worded slightly)