Beyond the buzzword

The term ‘business agility’ has been applied to a broad range of new technologies and practices over the past few years, from cloud computing to mobile working. In fact, it has been so widely applied that it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what it means.

In essence, ‘business agility’ as a strategy is about doing what businesses have always aimed to do—adapt rapidly and efficiently to change—but with a focus on agility as the end goal. As Steve Garnett from 4J Consulting explains: “Business agility is not a tool for enabling your strategy, it is a strategy: to create a business entity that rapidly adapts to its environments and customer demand, and innovates continuously.”

Agility is especially important in challenging economic conditions. Keith Richards from Keith Richards Consulting puts it simply: “The benefits of business agility are very simply to remain current and relevant in today’s harsh and volatile economic climate.” According to a report from Gartner, 73 per cent of board directors believe that the tough economic situation will remain as it is for the foreseeable future, so being able to respond to changes in demand remains a high priority.

Increasing agility is both a cultural and a technological process. Garnett emphasises that business agility means: “Giving your people engaging leadership, collaborative environments and the skills and technology to make the opportunity a reality.”

Often, the cultural and technological changes go hand-in-hand. For example, a recent study by Google found that only 12 per cent of employees are happy with the technology available to them at work, preferring the more intuitive tools they use in their personal lives. But bring-your-own-device (BYOD) is both a HR and an IT issue: it requires the HR department to listen to how staff want to work and negotiate more freedom for them to do so, and it requires the IT department to deviate from a traditional approach which dictates which devices can be used on their network.

In a similar way, an increasing number of people are working remotely and are demanding mobile extensions to products to help them be more effective. Gartner predicts that by 2015 half of enterprise email users will rely primarily on browser, tablet or mobility rather than the desktop. People need to be able to access documents from any of their devices (whether provided by work or their own consumer products) and from any location. A recent IDC study found that over half of workers using smartphones can’t print from their device but want to—this requires organisations to recognise demand (HR) and to use the apps that are already available (IT).

When applied to IT infrastructure, business agility includes using cloud services to reduce fixed costs. In this way businesses can divert resources from simply ‘keeping the lights on’ to having space for innovation. Similarly, software-as-a-service (SaaS) can improve agility in two ways, both by reducing the costs of setting up enterprise software and by letting people be more flexible about when and how they access software.

Thinking about every aspect of your business through an agile lens will lead to continuous improvements. In the examples above, workers will be able to complete tasks more quickly and IT overheads will be cut. However, when cultural and technology changes are put together they can also have a more dramatic impact. In 2011, Gartner predicted that 85 per cent of Fortune 500 organisations will fail to exploit big data for competitive advantage through 2015. Efficient and productive working practices will give people more space to be creative and can help businesses unlock the value of information that they already hold.

All companies are agile in some respects (or they would have already failed) but applying business agility as a strategy means extending agility to every area and every decision and action. To work out how agile your business is, Garnett suggests a simple test: think about your reaction if a director from any department came to you with a brilliant, but challenging idea. If you think your business could develop the idea quickly, you’re likely to be agile. If you think it would take years with your current processes, you might want to implement some changes.