Agile-IT - The whys, how's, and what's

Posted on Thursday, April 02, 2015
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By Lance Williams
Portfolio Manager, Cloud and Managed Services


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It has become the case that no industry presentation, or document, is complete unless the words “agile” or “agility” have been incorporated, but for many IT shops the thought of making operations agile is, frankly, as conceivable as the Captain of the Titanic successfully avoiding that fated iceberg; there is just no way it would have been possible without a thorough redesign of the ship, overhaul of the processes, and a re-plotting of the ship’s course.

The reality is that, as in the case of the Titanic, the poor souls on-board in April 1912 didn’t stand a chance, as the ship could not respond fast enough to:

  • The demands of the vessel to avoid the iceberg
  • The demands of the ailing passengers and crew on-board trying to flee
  • Remedy the damage to the vessel post-impact.

However, the Titanic was, quite simply, the most majestic, powerful, luxury, feat of ship-building the world had ever seen; nothing could be faulted, she was a beauty upon the seas, so it was only when she was required to respond quickly to external and internal demands that the blemishes began to appear. This metaphor really illustrates the crux of the “agile” wave in our industry and why all IT shops need to sit up, listen, and act before icebergs appear that we too cannot avoid.

Why do we need get Agile?

In the western world, consumers have been, and are continuing to be, conditioned to expect access to goods and services when they want them, how they want them, whichever way they want them, and from wherever they want them.; this conditioning is placing huge demands on the markets to respond to customer demands and it is those able to respond most efficiently and effectively who will ultimately thrive. Take Facebook, for example; in a recent article by Sarah Wilson (TechTarget, 2015), Chris Mason, Software Engineer at Facebook, stated, “Facebook desperately needs not just scalability, not just availability, but flexibility… We need to be able to change around our infrastructure to add new services and accommodate new things”; I believe we’d all agree that Facebook certainly have done a great job at innovating to deliver strong business results.

On the other hand, if we take a look at the woes of the UK supermarket giants, we can clearly see the Titanic analogy striking an unfortunate harmonic chord, as company Execs, who have built solid UK businesses over decades, face tough competition against new market rivals such as Lidl, Aldi, and, online, Ocado. Agility in a beast of a company, like our often multi-faceted UK supermarkets, is no mean feat, but necessary.

How do we get Agile?

A drive to agility can start in a number of places; it could be driven in a department, or for a specific task; it could be delivered through a point tool, or through a change of mind-set. The most successful outcomes should occur when an agile mentality is driven from the top of the organisation down throughout, entwining it into organisational culture. Implemented incorrectly however, without the right technology tools and business processes, it could lead to rash, uninformed decisions being made leading to the opposite effect: negative business outcomes.

So, how do we get agile? We need to make it business strategy; we need to plan carefully, and like all significant business strategies that involve change, we need to go slowly enough for the organisation to adapt to new work practices, (DevOps and Fail Fast project methodologies for example), but quickly enough that the initiative does not lose momentum. We also need to implement the right technology tools to support the strategy, both to support executing business agility, (Business Intelligence (BI) tools and open source software (OSS) for example), but also to give the organisation tangible milestones.

What do we need to get Agile?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect, cookie-cut formula, but there are some headlines that can get us going in the right direction.

  • Business Intelligence - Being agile is not only about being able to react quickly, but also being able to respond proactively. Predicting your market’s needs is no new concept, (marketeers have being doing this it for decades), but it is the rapid rise of Business Intelligence (BI) technologies that has enabled access to real-time data in a clean and legible fashion (visual analytics) and data modelling to simulate any given scenario, that has really enabled marketeers and their organisations to make more confident decisions in a more efficient manner. Softcat’s Lissa Jackson is a guru on this stuff.
  • Information Technology – Infrastructure - It is widely regarded that virtualisation was a transformational milestone in the technology industry; all virtualisation technologies certainly deliver agility – if you’ve embraced server virtualisation, now review virtualising desktops, networking, storage, even your data and… for ultimate agility, the elasticity offered by the Cloud. Softcat’s datacentre infrastructure and end user computing specialist teams are well experienced in all of this.
  • Information Technology – Line of Business - As I move about the UK, visiting clients in all vertical markets, it is clear that IT is viewed, more or less, in one of two ways: 1) as an enabler to the business and 2) as a platform that serves the business; the former is the modern mantra most often adopted by the best Boards, the latter is a little outdated. Bearing in mind that IT is fundamentally the centre of all organisational operations, the quicker you can move to viewing IT as an enabler to the business, the better off you’ll be.
  • Strategy –The Kaizen approach to manufacturing revolutionised the industry by moving to a model led by “continuous improvement” to processes; what is more agile than continuous improvement IT’s Kaizen is “DevOps”; in plain English, supported by multi-discipline business project teams, and senior business management, DevOps demands multi-directional empathy between software development teams, IT operations teams, and QA teams, in order to more efficiently, and successfully deliver business benefits through technology than without. Changing gear slightly, are you allowing your workforce the freedom to be agile? The natural product of business agility is round-the-clock working capability for your staff, However do not overlook the need to support this “agile” working model effectively; plan ahead for a 24/7 IT operation.

Summary

In summary, while this blog is not an exhaustive investigation into technologies, processes, and strategies to successfully develop a more agile business operation, it does highlight that agility is intrinsic in being able to react more effectively to the fast-moving pace of market/customer demands facing our organisations. An agile mentality to IT systems and strategy, combined with world-class personnel is two thirds of the formula, with the final third being a cultural instalment of the agile mantra from Board-level down.

If you’d like to get in touch with me directly for any further conversation, debate, or advice, then please email me here or @lance_williams?on Twitter.

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