Contributing writer

Streamlining IT for agility

May 25, 202212 mins
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipIT Strategy

IT leaders share their experiences and advice for overhauling IT for speed, including cutting down on projects, shifting to product-based delivery, and spurring a cultural transformation.

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There’s never been more pressure on IT to deliver technology-enabled change to the business. Yet the volume of demands placed on IT can make it challenging for IT leaders to concentrate IT resources on the right efforts.

Here, agility is essential, and smart IT leaders are doubling down on efforts to streamline IT, whether that involves reprioritizing projects and realigning the IT portfolio, rationalizing applications and pursuing cloud-native approaches, increasing automation through DevOps or AIOps adoption, or overhauling the structure of IT operations. talked with four IT leaders about what’s driving their efforts to streamline IT for greater agility, how they’re doing it, what the biggest challenges are, and the tricks they’ve uncovered for doing it well.

Saying no to give IT the gift of focus

“Focus makes it easier for employees to perform at a higher level,” Chiranjoy Das, CIO at IT services firm Randall-Reilly, wrote in a LinkedIn post earlier this year describing how he had been “ruthlessly canceling projects to increase the organization’s focus.” But that’s just one way Das is recommitting his technology organization to become more agile and product-driven.

Das’s biggest priorities include integrating Randall-Reilly IT with client systems to become more essential to their businesses, rearchitecting old systems using modern approaches such as microservices, implementing AI and machine learning to automate manual processes, and delivering clean, standardized data for analytics and monitoring.

Compounding the challenges is an immense pressure for speed and agility from IT: “We are, as a matter of fact, having to go-live with less-than-perfect features in order to be agile and meet customers’ demands,” says Das, noting that he’s reduced sprints from two weeks to one. “This forces the team to be on their toes, and in turn puts lots of pressure on the Scrum teams because we cannot compromise security.”

There’s only so much that can be squeezed out of existing resources, which is why Das began reassessing the projects on his team’s plate. Among the issues that led to an overfull pipeline included department heads pushing for pet projects that may not have strategic benefits for enterprise at large, the classification of too many big projects with iffy ROI as urgent, and what Das calls “big, shiny ideas,” like crypto projects that have not been properly vetted.

As delivery — and his burned-out team members — suffered under the weight of expectations, Das started to go after some of the big issues, including lack of business cases for certain projects, no executive sponsors or projects owners for others, and the lack of time available to address technical debt. He has scaled back the total number of projects IT is taking on and has been advocating for a shift to “product-centric” software development, meaning no work will be done unless a product owner prioritizes it based on what stakeholders want. In addition to weekly sprints, IT has also implemented CI/CD and has automated regression testing, which has boosted IT agility and quality.

Since Das began making these changes, the mood in IT has lifted. Talent retention has increased, meetings have decreased, and IT is working on a greater number of strategic projects aligned with business goals.

Company leaders appreciate that IT took a firm stand, says Das. “But they are watching us to see if we can deliver on the ones that we have promised,” he adds. “Higher accountability but lesser projects help us concentrate better.”

Leadership advice: Educating the business on why IT is reducing its slate of projects — to deliver more consistently — is critical, Das says. “Most projects do not add value,” he says, and the onus needs to shift to business leaders to prove ROI before sending projects to IT.

Also, an agile mentality and culture are far more important than an agile development methodology, Das says. IT leaders must create a sense of urgency before jumping headlong into things like CI/CD. Other key elements for agility include establishing a data warehouse, APIs, proper security, and scalable architecture. “Without the foundational blocks, IT cannot be agile,” Das says.

Empowering the business with integration frameworks and micro automation

Empowerment is the name of the game at Ricoh USA. To align with a business strategy focused on customer centricity and innovation, the technology group must make quick decisions and adjust to changing business conditions.

“It can’t be a free-for-all with everyone doing their own thing in silos,” says Bob Lamendola, senior vice president of technology and head of Ricoh USA’s digital services center. “But it also can’t be monolithic.”

That has led to three key strategic priorities for IT at Ricoh: micro automation, adopting an integration framework, and enabling citizen developers. In fact, the technology function is now organized around automation, integration, and analytics.

By focusing on incremental improvements in business processes with micro automation, IT has been able to rack up quick wins against efficiency objectives. “We continue to have long-term large-scale projects, focused on broader transformation changes, but by focusing on the smaller wins, we’re embracing agility and demonstrating to the organization that we’re listening to their immediate needs while also working toward longer-term goals,” Lamendola says.

Recognizing the need to support a complex, hybrid cloud infrastructure for the foreseeable future, Lamendola’s team has developed a flexible integration framework that enables easier interconnectivity while maintaining security controls. An API layer allows Ricoh’s third-party partners to connect with the company’s ERP and other partner services to create a better user experience with minimal operational support.

“We recognize the need to be agile with the ability to change partners or components of our hybrid model as required,” Lamendola explains. “By placing our integration framework at the core of our architecture, it becomes much less of a heavy lift each time we want to incorporate a new solution into our organization.”

IT has also made investments in data aggregation, engineering, and analytics to unleash the power of citizen developers, who can use a framework of centrally developed rules and business processes to transform data into information that drives actions.

“They are empowered to build their own dashboards and models to accomplish their teams’ goals,” says Lamendola. A data analytics community also promotes idea sharing, celebration of achievements, and consistency. “The authentic nature of this community combined with the structured approach to data aggregation and accessibility have provided a balanced level of control at a functional and corporate level,” he says.

It’s been a significant cultural shift that has required IT to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Traditional jobs are transforming and new mindsets are required. “We’ve had successes and we’ve made sure we ‘hyper-celebrated’ these wins,” says Lamendola. “Long-term we’ll focus on productivity, but it’s essential we get the culture piece right from the start to unlock the potential.” 

Leadership advice: If you build it, change will come. “We’ve been keenly focused on the foundation and less about the end product. The end product is important, but it doesn’t move us forward,” says Lamendola. “We’re on a journey and still mid-transformation, but we’re working to leverage past investments to accelerate the future foundational strategy.” Also, it’s important to know when to ease up on the controls. “Yes, policy and controls must exist,” Lamendola says, “but you have to also embrace a sense of flexibility to allow agility to happen.” 

Breaking down barriers: Reorganizing around product and process

Content services provider Hyland is undergoing a major systems overhaul to fuel company growth and create its next generation of platform-based products. This has also placed intense pressure on IT to deliver continuous value, says CIO Steve Watt.

“The business can no longer wait for all projects to be Big Bang delivery,” he says. “They expect value delivered continuously throughout project lifecycles.”

For Watt, streamlining means removing barriers to employee performance. Here, automation is critical, enabling teams to self-serve both within and outside IT with a focus on outcomes. “By having the right resources engaged directly and focused on those outcomes, teams become a tightly functioning unit with a narrow vision of what success looks like,” he says.

That’s why Watt is restructuring IT into product- or process-aligned teams. Each unit has its own reporting structure incorporating staff from a range of disciplines, including solution and platform engineers, product owners, agile process managers, and IT staff skilled with infrastructure, application development, and integration. For example, one team is focused entirely on Hyland’s “quote to order” process, with the work done continuously using an agile framework to execute against an ongoing backlog of features, improvements, and fixes.

Since the restructuring, there’s greater focus and less time wasted prioritizing or rationalizing work that may never be done. “Plus, we’ve been better aligned with the business, and have seen faster implementations and less rework,” says Watt.

Ongoing communication with the business around this new way of working has been essential. “We’ve sought — and gotten — buy-in that some things need to be cut out to focus on what is important and to ensure we are focused on the right work with the limited resources we have,” Watt explains.

Leadership advice: IT can still lose time and focus if the business is not prepared to participate at the right times and on a regular cadence. “Make sure your business stakeholders are up to speed on what agile really means and how your execution in that framework will function and where they fit into that process,” says Watt.

Just-right technology: Embracing workflow automation

For the IT team at Inteleos, a nonprofit medical certification organization, the pressure to increase speed and agility is self-imposed, says CIO Juan Sanchez.

Implementation of an integration platform as a service (IPaaS) is at the top of the IT agenda, along with reducing technical debt through core platform refreshes, building a data science capability for internal and external customers, and creating zero-touch employee onboarding and provisioning.

“We can drive big impact if we take advantage of these tools and opportunities,” Sanchez says, adding that “the ultimate way forward in streamlining IT is to leverage workflow automation.”

By leveraging mature SaaS platforms with complete APIs, development teams at Inteleos can focus on the key operations of a workflow instead of the underlying details of code and the never-ending refactoring work. Infrastructure teams can also focus on building out workflows that deliver direct value to the business. By streamlining and automating the account and app provisioning workflow instead of keeping a domain controller operating, for example, IT can deliver a much better onboarding experience to new hires. “If done right, technology teams will build systems more like a logistics system, connecting SaaS nodes by building the most efficient routes between them,” says Sanchez.

Currently, many business processes at Inteleos require manual intervention. Change requests are often focused on making the process better for staff but not necessarily for the customer. Sanchez hopes that when business process owners understand that that they can automate repetitive tasks, it will unlock their ability to think about a process in a more integrated way with a greater focus on whom the process benefits and how.

“We’re looking at our operation as an elastic system,” says Sanchez. “We try to identify where bottlenecks are happening in our delivery of value and think about where and how we should scale different parts of that system.”

Inteleos is also embracing the principle of “Goldilocks IT” — building just the right amount of technology, no more, no less. Building new technology should almost be an option of last resort, according to Sanchez. “While it seems counterintuitive, each new technology solution has immediate and long-lasting costs,” he says. “We have to be careful not to jump in too fast to solve everything with technology first.”

So far, KPIs improvied and traditional IT service metrics like cycle times and SLA breaches have decreased. Through use of better architectural approaches in API designs, the development team has exceeded its concurrent request performance target by 250%.

It’s not easy to shift IT’s image from black-box transactional function to business partner. But increasing dialogue between IT and its stakeholders is moving the needle at Inteleos. “We are having more strategic impact and helping guide the organization at a much more macro level than before,” Sanchez says. “Being careful to approach the dialog as a collaboration instead of a prescription is important and it’s a skill that most technology teams need to develop.”

Leadership advice: Be willing to get creative with regard to talent. “Without this ingredient, the best architectures in the world will fail,” says Sanchez. “We’ve had to learn quickly where to find people, at what skill level, and in what type of engagement works best for what the system is requiring at any given time.”

Sanchez also agrees that, above all, agility is a mindset. “It has to be in the minds of the technology team first and then have that mindset permeate how we interact with the business. Through those interactions you will then see agility manifest in the business,” says Sanchez. “If as a team we can’t conceive ideas beyond what’s in front of us, we’re destined to stay transactional.”