Change: An unstoppable force of nature – and information technology

In the BBC series ‘Wonders of the Universe’, Professor Brian Cox describes the effect of entropy as a change from an ordered state to a disordered state, due to an overwhelming mathematical likelihood that an ordered structure like a sandcastle will inevitably devolve into a pile of sand. A number of theories, including the well-known Moore’s Law, propose that the rate of technological change we experience increases exponentially.

It would seem that change is an unavoidable and fundamental component of our reality.

Rapidly testing theories and retiring those that do not succeed helps to foster freedom of thought, and the ability to explore creative solutions without wasting significant resources on non-viable concepts.

How organisations navigate change in part dictates their long-term success. A 2012 Citibank survey submits that over half of businesses surveyed have needed to reinvent their business in order to stay afloat or competitive. Sudden and significant change to business operations, such as the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, can be even more disruptive. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims that forty per cent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster.

If compelled by forces beyond our control to embrace change, what are some concrete approaches that organisations can adopt to help respond in a positive manner? As well as inferring that IT systems should focus on simplicity and maintainability as key design qualities, it suggests that flexibility and adaptability in the face of change are critical to ensuring that an organisation’s technology systems are able to support changing business objectives and operating environments. This flexibility and adaptability can take on many forms, but a number of well-established approaches that can be adopted are described below:

IT strategy and planning

The first and probably most important consideration is that change and planning are not mutually exclusive. A strategy can and should be developed in such a way as to expect change and respond accordingly. This means strategies and roadmaps become living documents, continually reviewed and assessed to ensure that objectives and activity align with both the current business needs and technology trends.

Rapid prototyping

Successful change is tightly bound to innovation. Organisations that have a mature approach to research and development enjoy higher performance than those that undertake sporadic or no RD.

The 2013 TIN100 survey clearly demonstrates that New Zealand technology companies with the highest revenue and fastest growth such as Tait Group, Rakon, and Fisher Paykel Healthcare, place significant importance on RD. The ability to ability to innovate quickly ensures that new solutions enter the market in a timely fashion. There are a number of approaches to fast-cycle product development, once such example being Design Thinking. One important dimension shared by these approaches is the ability to embrace controlled failure. Not every idea is destined for success, yet the solution to complex challenges is not always obvious, even to experts. Rapidly testing theories and retiring those that do not succeed helps to foster freedom of thought, and the ability to explore creative solutions without wasting significant resources on non-viable concepts.

Flexible delivery

The ability to deliver on innovation in fast-changing environments demands an approach that can demonstrate value quickly and retain a high degree of flexibility should circumstances change. When exploring solution spaces with high degrees of uncertainty, highly-constrained delivery methodologies can form a straightjacket that prevents projects adjusting course where necessary, and run the risk of deploying a solution that is obsolete before the project is completed. An Agile, iterative or other delivery methodology that allows change to align with new imperatives helps mitigate these risks. These approaches also place strong emphasis on quickly delivering meaningful outcomes to project stakeholders. ANZ used an Agile approach when consolidating core systems as part of the brand merger with the National Bank, and Westpac is looking to Agile approaches to increase the pace of their service delivery activities.

Standards support

In most cases, developing technology solutions to align with published standards that are supported by a wide range of products and organisations helps to prevent lock-in to a single vendor or technology solution. Organisations benefit from increased choice when selecting technology providers and less pain when switching between vendors and providers.

Service-oriented architecture

An approach that has been popular for well over a decade, Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) allows organisations to expose the functionality of their business applications as reusable services that can be combined and used in different ways. SOA is especially useful as it not only allows additional value to be extracted from existing investments, but it also represents a looser coupling between dependent services. Changing these couplings in response to new objectives is much easier to achieve, and enhancements to services is typically less impactful on service consumers. SOA architectures have traditionally been delivered using SOAP web services, but increasingly RESTful web services have gained popularity as a more lightweight approach to SOA. The relative simplicity of RESTful services eases both implementation and change efforts.

Cloud services

In a fast changing business environment, there is a real risk that providing new IT services using the traditional bespoke software or COTS approach will render the solution obsolete or ineffective by the time the project has completed delivery. Organisations such as Xero have established cloud services as a foundational component of their business model.

Established organisations such as New Zealand’s Orion Healthcare are using the cloud to deliver significant benefits to their customers. Moving towards subscription-based cloud services allows organisations to select from a range of established service offerings that allow the desired functions and benefits to be realised much more quickly. An organisation that adopts these services and delivery model has very little in the way of sunk costs associated with the service which must then be recovered or utilised. If a cloud service no longer aligns with business objectives, the cost of exit is limited to migration to another platform. Most cloud services expose programmatic functionality as web services, which makes leveraging the service functionality and any subsequent decoupling much more straightforward.

Regardless of industry or organisation, the unstoppable forces of change will impact how IT services are operated and delivered in the future. Those that choose to remain static will see their carefully crafted castles eventually crumble into a pile of sand. Embracing change armed with smart approaches and technologies that support flexibility and adaptability will help stave off entropy and might even help transform the castle into a tropical resort, eco-friendly high-rise or whatever else is needed to thrive in tomorrow’s business environment.

The author is senior consultant–architecture practice, Equinox IT. He has worked with multinational companies, cloud service providers, and New Zealand government agencies on designing and implementing cloud services.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

6 digital transformation success stories