IT strategy: agility management – Treading carefully

For all the lucrative conferences and textbooks about how to make IT projects deliver real benefit, 45 per cent of strategic developments in large European companies still fail – by being seriously late, not delivering their business objectives or being canned halfway through.

The latest vogue for addressing this perennial problem is “agility management” – something that emerged during the BPR obsession of a few years ago but then faded from the management limelight. Now a clutch of consultancies are touting its benefits, and US market research firm Forrester Research sees it as the cure for all evils.

“We hear this story time and again: last autumn your executive team identified, and agreed upon, five new strategic initiatives to implement. It’s now the spring and only two projects have been started and one is stuck in the mud,” says Forrester in a new report.

The traditional reasons given for this are poor project planning, bad communication of business requirements and deadlines, the gulf of understanding between business departments and IT. But this may not be the whole story.

According to Forrester, two other factors are key: organisational resistance to change and projects that are too self-contained – failing to take into account the impact they will have on other projects and existing systems and ways of working. And these are the issues that the consultancies are now racing to address.

But is it just another excuse to sell conference places and consultancy hours? Or can agile companies really be created through a mixture of IT systems and cultural change?

Andersen Consulting and KPMG are probably the members of the Big Six that are most actively involved in this approach and Andersen even has an agility unit. But more specialised players are also arriving, including US-based Agile Management Partners, which will shortly set up shop in Europe.

The IT industry too sees dollar potential in the new catchphrase. Business software suppliers such as SSA talk about providing flexible, lean software that can be quickly and easily mixed and matched, and adapted, as business needs change. The advent of object technology, which provides reusable and interchangeable “lego bricks” of code from which to build applications rapidly, will help foster this approach.

For the first time, the proponents argue, software can be rapidly modified to suit the business, rather than working the business structures and working practices around the software. Such software houses, and the consultancies that favour them, argue that their agile approach suits the new way that companies must view business thinking and IT development – in terms of constant, relatively unintrusive change. They compare this to monolithic enterprise software such as SAP, which they believe is more suited to the old approach of “big bang BPR” and sudden wholesale change.

The other way in which IT itself can help a company become agile is through communication. Groupware and intranets are key here, allowing all departments to keep updated on the progress of different projects and to be kept aware of any changes that might affect their own work. AMP, for example, is developing The Agile Manager, an intranet application that allows senior managers to build up a single view of all company business initiatives, who is in charge of them, what their objectives are, and how they will interrelate with other projects.

As with all new approaches to IT development, though, the software techniques must be backed up by business thinking, and this is where things usually fall apart – and probably will again for most companies and consultancies attempting “agility”.

The consultancy advice for companies wanting to pursue agility is uncannily similar to the advice they gave when advocating big bang BPR, Case methodologies and all the other IT-business trends that have been experimented with and then pushed aside. “Tightly integrate business and IT planning” and “make planning an ongoing business process” are the two key factors, says Forrester.

Good advice, but hardly original. It is certainly true that many initiatives fail because the IT component of a business plan is not considered early enough in the process. This means that the IT plan is often tacked on later and may be given objectives that are impractical with the technology available, or poorly understood by the IT department. Some consultancies now make it practice to include IT discussions in the early strategy phase of their projects, but many do not, or do so in a very cursory way without going into realistic detail or involving people with real IT knowledge.

Planning once a year, like big bang BPR, does not take into account the way that business conditions can change overnight and make all the expensively drawn-up documents irrelevant. So ongoing planning, with projects continually being reassessed and modified makes sense.

But there are probably two major obstacles to this approach. One is shortage of management time. With UK managers already working more hours per day and producing more output than almost any in Europe, most will groan at the idea of a weekly planning meeting and constant revision of decisions – even if they support the idea in practice. And if good practice cannot be accommodated within the day’s agenda, or fails to get practical management buy-in, it will remain in the textbook.

The other obstacle is the one mentioned by Forrester – built-in resistance to change within most organisations. Company cultures may change gradually in response to new ways of working, so that employees feel motivated rather than threatened by constant change, but it will take generations for culture to catch up with management consultancy theory. While the principles of agility may sound excellent, consultancies must be careful not to just use them to make a quick conference buck, but instead to help companies implement them in realistic and manageable steps.

Caroline Gabriel is a group editor in VNU’s IT portfolio.

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