Making Agility an Ability

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 07-24-2007

Making Agility an Ability

The IT world is full of brainy people with not enough time to think. Hence, the ever present need for researchers who can dive into its most pressing issues and surface with practical answers. Few research organizations are as respected as the Advanced Practices Council of the Society for Information Management. Its members, who decide on the research agenda, include CIOs from 34 major companies, government agencies and health care organizations including Allstate, BP, Chubb, General Services Administration, Johnson Controls and NASA. For 15 years, the APC has been led by program director Madeline Weiss, president of Weiss Associates in Bethesda, Md.; in 2004, one of the most prominent professors in the IT academic world, Blake Ives of the University of Houston's Bauer School of Business, became its research director.

In recent years, the pursuit of agility has been a running theme of APC research. We asked Weiss and Ives to discuss highlights from APC-sponsored studies on agility, as well as from some of the most important presentations by other academics about their independent work on the topic. The following is an edited version of their recent conversation with CIO Insight Executive Editor Allan Alter.

CIO INSIGHT: Why did APC-member CIOs feel it important to focus on agility at this time?

Weiss: As a result of competitive challenges and opportunities in the market, CIOs are more frequently being asked to quickly enable major acquisitions, mergers and changes in business models I call it "adaptive agility." In 2005, CVS acquired a significant number of Eckerd drugstores in the South, and the CIO of CVS, Carl Taylor, was asked to integrate these stores into CVS' information systems within six months to gain the expected economies of scale. Another example is Cemex, a Mexican company that had to very quickly change its business model from selling cement, a commodity product, to providing same-day cement delivery.


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Isn't there another side to agility fast-paced opportunism?

Weiss: Certainly, what we call "entrepreneurial agility". That comes about when the CIO is at the executive table, truly understands the business, and sees his or her role and IT's role as anticipating needs and seeking opportunities.

Ives: Reducing costs had been the watchword for CIOs since 2001. Recently, however, CIOs are being drawn back to an innovation agenda, as advances in technology, competition, and rising expectations from increasingly technically sophisticated customers once again require harnessing IT to competitive advantage. But, in responding to the innovation agenda, CIOs are not willing to sacrifice the efficient architectures that most now have in place. They need to be able to respond more quickly, but not by sacrificing architectural accountability and efficiency. Agility, I believe, describes that search for a solution that can meet two organizational objectives that are often seen as conflicting efficiency and effectiveness.

What IT capabilities do companies need to be agile?

Weiss: In her presentation to the APC, Jeanne Ross of MIT identified those capabilities in terms of enterprise architecture. Her research at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research laid out four different stages of architecture maturity, beginning with business silos, continuing with standardized technology, then what she calls optimized core (optimizing core processes by improving and standardizing them), and the fourth stage, business modularity (adding customized or reusable software modules to adapt to local conditions and to experiment). When they reach Stage 4, organizations have standardized technology, data and core processes, fewer platforms, and software modules. She discovered that organizations become well positioned for organizational agility as their enterprise architectures mature. At stages 3 and 4, they can move quickly to integrate acquisitions and mergers. For example, Citibank Asia Pacific was nearing Stage 4 when Jeanne did her research for us. Because of their standardized data and core processes, they can quickly open banks in the Asia Pacific region and get them up and running very fast. Companies must reach stages 3 and 4 before they have the architecture in place to be agile. Editor's note: For more on Jeanne Ross's research on enterprise architecture, agility and alignment, see our December 2005 interview with Ross, at "The New Alignment Target".

What is the most surprising finding related to agility?

Weiss: When Jeanne Ross finished her enterprise architecture study, she conducted a new study specifically on agility. In this study, she confirmed her findings on enterprise architecture. But she was surprised that so many of her interviews turned to the importance of knowledge management and employee empowerment with new kinds of tools. I was pleasantly surprised to hear this because the APC had already commissioned research on far-flung teams and wikis-collaborative approaches and tools.

Big Picture

What is required to make collaboration tools effective?

Weiss: Ann Majchrzak's research on far-flung teams teams spread across the globe, working collaboratively to innovate, with minimal or no face-to-face interaction does a fabulous job of answering that question. She's a professor at the University of Southern California. Along with Arvind Malhotra of the University of North Carolina, she studied 54 very successful project teams that were spread around the world, including teams that designed a thrust chamber for a new rocket engine, and an IT team that merged the e-mail infrastructure for two merging companies. They discovered that deploying full-time team leaders was a critical success factor. To me that's not intuitive, because far-flung team members may work on many different projects at any one time. Those full-time team leaders need to spend a lot of time communicating with each member individually.

Far-flung teams require people who are big-picture, enterprise-level thinkers who also have excellent local knowledge. They are people who have a tolerance for ambiguity and strive for intellectual stimulation, because they may not be paid more for doing these jobs. But team members need to be rewarded for their work for the far-flung teams, and the intellectual capital they contribute to the enterprise. And in one case, an oil exploration and production company, the managers are rewarded when members of their organizations are asked to serve on far-flung teams, to encourage managers to let staff participate.

Ann and Arvind talked to the APC about discouraging travel travel's the easy way to avoid using some of these new practices and the importance of encouraging the use of collaborative technologies. The three technologies that far-flung teams found most valuable were instant messaging, audio conferencing and repositories for content capture and display.

They also talked about the importance of establishing collaboration norms and procedures. For example, when meetings are held, there should be no one-to-one e-mails among team members, because then it's not in the repository (an electronic means of collecting knowledge, processes and lessons learned, etc., of a far-flung team), and some people see it while others don't. This norm forces people to use the repository and not have one-on-one conversations. Other norms are checking the repository once a day, and leaving information on how you could be reached. Researchers described regular audio conferences as the lifeblood of the team. They are held as frequently as once a week, and all team members are mandated to attend.

Did they find any additional steps that have to be taken when working with global teams?

Weiss: They found why these teams were not co-located. It had very little to do with cost savings. They discovered it's very important to keep these people close to local markets and their home teams, so that any decisions or questions that had to be addressed could be addressed very quickly. They also discovered that not co-locating led to higher retention of valuable people because they could stay close to their family.

There are two other points I'd like to throw in. One is that less than 30 percent of the teams they studied used any form of videoconferencing. They found it was expensive, but even more important, the participants found it disruptive. Viewing people on the screen was distracting. Another factor was the time differences. By only holding audio conferences, people could take the call from their home at 11 p.m., rather than come to the office for a video conference.

Majchrzak and Christian Wagner of the City University of Hong Kong recently completed a study on wikis for the APC. What did you learn from their research that differed from Majchrzak's findings on far-flung terms?

Weiss: We didn't learn anything that contradicted our research on far-flung teams; I would say it was additive. The researchers stressed that wiki technology is very helpful. Because it's browser-based, it's fast, simple and quick. But they stressed that effectiveness has a lot to do with what they call the "Wiki Way." Each firm has its own unique norms, but there is a Wiki Way that goes across firms, and that's the norm for design and collaborative content creation. According to the Wiki Way, wikis are open, anyone can modify their content and structure, and all content is open for review. That's contrary to the way most corporations work. Where else do you see people change other peoples' work in a public way, regardless of their level is in an organization? So it's important to work hard on several cultural changes: First, to make it OK to change other people's work both the content and the structure and not feel a sense of affront when that happens to you. Another change is to do work on the wiki. Phone calls and e-mail are so much a part of the way we work that having a very active champion and sponsor is critical for making wikis work. That sponsor has to continually go back to people and say do it on the wiki, or look it up on the wiki, or don't send me this e-mail, please put it on the wiki. Our researchers also talked about this concept of "wabi-sabi" Japanese words that translate as "the beauty of imperfection." The idea here is to keep the wiki simple, and not too perfect and final looking, because potential authors may feel threatened by a wiki that looks too professional.

Is wiki adoption happening because of a generational change?

Ives: I believe Wiki adoption is happening because of the power of the tool. Adoption is slowed, however, because of generational issues, among others legal, security, redundancy with other systems, reward systems. My takeaway from this research is that, with few exceptions, we will only see this tool bubbling up in organizations rather than being driven down into them and that may indeed be largely generational. In some instances, individuals in relatively senior positions might be able to make this work for large sub-units or even entire (probably small) firms. The interesting question is, will those infrastructures survive when such individuals leave. If the wiki is fully integrated into the work process, rather than just serving as a knowledge repository, they probably will survive.