The term 'agile' has been around for a while, and is normally used in the context of more agile systems development processes and practices. Agile is usually positioned at the opposite end of a continuum from traditional waterfall systems development methodologies -- with their rigid progression through successive linear phases of requirements definition, specification, building, integration and testing.
Agile approaches, in contrast, are characterised by the use of pre-existing platforms to enable early delivery of functionality, feedback loops, and iteration to progressively refine a solution in response to evolving business requirements.
'More agile ICT', however, is a bigger aspiration than simply adopting a new approach to the systems development lifecycle. It requires a change of mindset by business executives not just ICT professionals. At its core are rising frustrations that the current approach to ICT isn't working well enough ... and sometimes isn't working at all. These frustrations arise partially in response to project and systems failures, though these are hardly new phenomena, and partially in response to the new 'art of the possible'. The latest generation of mobile and cloud based solutions just seem to be so much more functional, flexible, cost effective and faster to implement -- and, quite frankly, 'good enough'.
Remind me again why ICT has become so damn difficult, time consuming and expensive? Ah, that's right ... because of the way we framed business requirements and tricked ourselves that dedicated + specialised + customised was necessary and better than shared + standardised + configured. 'More agile ICT' is a reawakening by business executives to the consequences of their expectations, the way they ask for ICT and the way they understand and manage risk.
Executives have grown used to framing requests for ICT using 'internal-out requirements logic'. This logic leads to requests along these lines: "I'd like to acquire an ICT solution to support today's internally-focused understanding of business requirements. Because ICT projects are scary and risky I want the project specified in great detail and managed in a structured and disciplined manner -- even if it takes longer and costs more. Don't cut corners."
This request leads to thick documents, customised solutions, rigid schedules, long timeframes and a focus on 'safe' process rather than rapid outcomes. In many cases the process is 'successful' but the outcomes are disappointing, inflexible, expensive and/or delivered too late.
'More agile ICT' involves framing requests for ICT using external-in requirements logic. This logic leads to a different request: "I'd like to acquire access to ICT capabilities which will support my evolving business requirements -- the most important thing is that results are delivered early, that we take advantage of the economies of scale provided by existing external shared capabilities and that we maximise our leverage of pre-existing solutions to accelerate business innovation and reduce costs and risks."
This approach leads ultimately to more lightweight systems and adoption of public cloud services and consumer-market style mobile solutions. Framing a request this way, however, means that executives need to be flexible about business requirements and need to learn new ways of understanding and controlling project and counterparty risks.
Business requirements start to become negotiable in the context of benefit/risk trade-off discussions and more rapid feedback loops regarding practicality and cost. Effective use of pre-existing external shared platforms and solutions starts to be seen as a competitive advantage because it accelerates innovation and lowers costs. The focus is on what you do ... not what you own.
'More agile ICT' is fundamentally an executive leadership issue. ICT departments have acted in response to the way executives have framed their requests for ICT solutions over many years.
Perhaps if the requests are framed differently we might start getting different results? This is the key ICT strategy challenge for 2013.
Mobile, cloud, big data/analytics, social networking and BYOD are building blocks of a better way forward.
Unless executives start thinking in terms of external-in requirements logic they will find that their ICT departments will simply build the new blocks into traditionally complex in-house solutions designed to meet old-school internal-out requirements thinking.
Dr Steve Hodgkinson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is research director IT Asia Pacific for Ovum.
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