Contributing writer

12 tips for achieving IT agility in the digital era

Jun 15, 2022
Agile DevelopmentDigital TransformationIT Leadership

The pandemic has proved IT agility is an existential imperative. IT leaders versed with agile transformation share tips for speeding up IT’s ability to create business value and navigate change.

johnson johnson runners race digital transformation agile
Credit: Getty Images

Pre-COVID, agility became an aspiration and rallying cry for organizations seeking to embrace emerging technologies and pursue technology-enabled innovation, often to stave off digital disruption in their industries. Once the pandemic hit, that nice-to-have became an existential necessity.

“As CIO, I’m constantly looking at ways to become more agile and using IT as a strategic differentiator,” says Scott duFour, global CIO at digital payment solutions company Fleetcor. “This goes beyond implementing agile methodology. It’s the ongoing assessment of how we can run our current systems more efficiently to meet our digital transformation goals.”

When all business became digital, every organization became a technology organization. “Organizations’ strategic goals are increasingly dependent on resilient, agile technology functions that not only support the day-to-day operations but are leading the way in new innovative solutions to streamline experiences and enable new product offerings,” says Chris Nardecchia, senior vice president and chief information and digital Officer at Rockwell Automation.

“Leaders that recognize this, want to move fast, and it does create pressure,” Nardecchia adds. “But it’s also important to recognize that pressures like these are an immense opportunity to rethink IT organizations’ strategic goals and execute a scalable architecture that expands with growing business needs.” talked with a range of IT leaders about their experiences optimizing IT for agility. Following are a dozen of their best tips for getting there.

Think a step ahead

The top priority for IT at Marco’s Pizza has been developing an in-house cloud-based technology platform at a time when digital ordering has grown threefold. Rick Stanbridge, executive vice president and CIO of Marco’s Pizza, extols the importance of establishing a technology foundation capable of incorporating emerging features to keep ahead of the competition.

“By housing our own data via the new order management system, we can also enable all sorts of applications both now and in the future,” says Stanbridge. “We’ll be able to pivot and plug in additional technology features for customers as they become available, such as ordering from virtual assistants, remote kiosk ordering, GPS pinpointed delivery, instant ordering via social media, and automotive app integration.”

Balance control with agility

Lines of business seeking agility in the face of rigid IT requirements have traditionally turned to “shadow IT” — technology investments not explicitly sanctioned by IT, paid for by business units to suit their needs. In an effort to support business goals, and reassert some control, IT leaders are seeking to rebalance the shadow IT equation.

For example, while the IT organization at Ricoh USA doesn’t support shadow IT, it also doesn’t demand that employees submit every request to IT if it’s something they can manage on their own.

“Yes, policy and controls must exist, but you have to also embrace a sense of flexibility to allow agility to happen,” says Bob Lamendola, Ricoh USA’s senior vice president of technology and lead of its digital services center. “By definition, you cannot be agile by forcing excessive structure. Particularly in a hybrid workforce, trying to control everything leads to lethargy and can create a perception that you’re restricting the business. This is where we need to set our IT hats aside and appreciate there’s an art to decision-making and leading an IT organization.”

Reduce complexity with automation

Rockwell’s Nardecchia and other IT leaders are staunch supporters of automation as a means for achieving agility.

“Implementing smart automation of processes, increases the quality of outcomes, makes the organization nimble and quick to reach to changing business dynamics,” Nardecchia says.

At Voya Financial, the IT function is always evaluating business process looking for ways to implement straight-through processing using capabilities such as natural language processing, optical character recognition, AI, and low-code automation. A recent RPA project at Voya successfully reduced a tax calculation process time by 80%, reducing the risk of human error, to boot.

Blue Prism’s internal Center of Excellence focuses on automating as much work as possible and moving toward self-service. Much of IT work is repetitive. The work that is not repetitive is changing at a remarkable pace,” says Jon Walden, Blue Prism’s CTO for the Americas. “For my team, looking at the work that needs to be accomplished is critical. Often the next step is how can that work be reduced or automated. This capacity not only increases the agility, but generally the employee retention issues as well.”

Make the workplace attractive to IT pros

Talent is another key to agility, IT leaders say, making the hiring and retention of IT pros vital to any organization-wide efficiency and transformation efforts.

“Without enough of them, it will be tough to achieve agility,” says Fleetcor’s DuFour. “Offer flexible working arrangements. Provide training so they can improve their skill sets, while meeting your changing needs as well.”

DuFour also recommends casting a wider net for IT talent. “Many companies are wise in that they are looking beyond IT professionals with a four-year degree,” he says. “Why not look at prospects who have IT-related certifications, an associate degree from a community college or other pertinent skills to fulfill certain IT jobs?”

Consider decentralizing

Like many organizations, Voya Financial consolidated its technology operations as part of its transformation, creating common processes, shared knowledge, and a strong talent bench.

“However, this model created more functional silos, process handoffs, and operational complexity,” Keshavan explains. So, in early 2021, Voya’s IT groups began transitioning back to a decentralized model, aligning value streams and bringing technology shared services work closer together to reduce process delays and complexity.

Declutter the technology environment

“If your tech stack is streamlined, easy to access, and easy to use, your workforce can quickly respond to business or customer needs seamlessly,” says Fleetcor’s duFour.

Key to this is getting a handle on application sprawl by rationalizing the IT portfolio. Voya Financial’s simplification journey began with such an effort, a process that reduced its application footprint by 17% and its slate of technology tools by one quarter. The work continues as part of its cloud migration work.

“This practice is instilling standards and discipline that will only help to ensure our environment remains uncluttered and contemporary for the long term,” Keshavan says. As a result, the IT group is faster and more flexible, recently deploying  five new cloud services for data science and analytics developers to use within four hours —something that would have taken a cross-functional IT team several weeks to deploy in the past.

Reining in application sprawl has also been valuable at Snow Software. “Oftentimes, companies and teams will invest in applications with similar purposes,” says Snow Software CIO Alastair Pooley. “By limiting the set of applications used and reducing overlaps, we can help employees navigate their work more efficiently.” That requires visibility across the technology estates. “This is the number one challenge of most organizations,” Pooley says. “You can’t improve what you don’t know you have.”

Consider a high-low strategy

The IT organization at Databricks is expected to drive the company’s scale while accelerating service delivery. “We live in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity and how well our teams can adapt to this ever-changing environment is the single biggest determinant of success,” says Databricks CIO Naveen Zutshi.

Zutshi recently implementing a high-low IT strategy to achieve greater focus and increased agility. “We home in on a few transformational priorities that are high value at the company level and involve complex initiatives. These are the big rocks and run parallel to a large number of low-effort/high-value IT priorities that are both functionally focused and prioritized,” Zutshi says.

“The strategy enables us to work on tackling hard things for the company that require multi-quarters before delivery while ensuring IT has the capacity to focus on delivering value by business function with higher levels of optionality for change,” he says, adding that the shift has reduced bottlenecks and increased business engagement.

Build for self-service

Although Boomi maintains a traditional service desk for exceptions, the IT organization is focused on building tools with self-service in mind.

Neil Kole, CIO at Boomi, which rebuilt its IT organization after being spun off from Dell Technologies, emphasizes the importance of self-service for organizations seeking agility.

“Replicating Dell’s IT structure, which is architected for 170,000 people, was not the right answer,” Kole says. “Boomi is a fast-paced, born-in-the-cloud company, and so Boomi IT should be, too.”

Still, Boomi says, while the pressure for IT agility comes from within, Boomi IT must also focus on security and operational excellence as well. “Balancing these attributes is a tall order, but our ticket to success has been our laser focus on cloud,” Kole says. “No more legacy solutions that require large teams and budgets. Agility is at the center of all solutions that we design and implement.” 

Reinforce and reward

IT leaders must recognize that becoming agile and staying agile are different things, Voya Financial’s Keshavan says.

“The greatest challenge is to sustain a streamlined, simplified environment,” he says. “This takes continual, proactive communication and reinforcement of behaviors across the company.” Especially given the constant pull to introduce the next shiny technology. “If not governed appropriately, you can be reducing an application in one business and adding three more to another area,” Keshavan warns.

Communicating the value of simplicity and agility early and often is key. “It’s important to build a coalition of advocates across the company with a common understanding and shared goals to reinforce the many benefits to an agile environment,” Keshavan says. “They will not only help to create a culture of simplicity; they will also become a highly valued network of individuals poised for early identification of potential complexity being added into the company’s operational system.

Master data

Global commercial real estate firm Avison Young has grown by acquisition — and amassed a large and dispersed tech stack along the way. The resulting data silos thwarted agility. Consolidating those systems was an important first step to enabling the business to analyze data and provide insights to clients more quickly.

“Today, the team can spend 80% of its time providing insight and analysis, and only 20% of its time on pulling the data,” says Avison Young CIO Mike Hart. “Through a combination of our efforts to consolidate our tech and a critical master data management initiative, we’ve been able to take advantage of passive data to increase visibility into our current activity — which we then leverage to deliver superior employee and customer experiences.”

Make IT’s priorities clear

Ensuring IT’s key priorities are clear to everyone is essential for achieving agility in realizing business goals, Fleetcor’s duFour says.

For Fleetcor IT, this meant pursuing four key areas in 2021: creating a unified customer experience using build-once, run-anywhere architecture; establishing more API integrations for quicker enablement of revenue opportunities; modernizing core systems through the use of cloud; and improving data services with standardized processes and machine learning capabilities. IT was able to implement a cloud-based API and data architecture that enables Fleetcor’s lodging business to integrate multiple data sources.

“The process to bring data in-house, integrate it, and cleanse it would typically take up to 18 months, but by leveraging the cloud and API architecture, we can do this in just a few weeks’ time,” duFour says.

Define the end state

All too often, daily demands on IT can cause IT groups to push off transformational work. But doing so means digging a hole that only becomes deeper and more difficult to climb out over time. Instead, transformation should be seen as an ongoing, iterative process that needs to be sustained. Here, having a vision — and continually steering IT toward it — is key.

“First, define your end state, then figure out how to get there,” says Boomi’s Kole. “Then build a roadmap that delivers significant and meaningful transformation quarter after quarter.” 

Stanley Huang, co-founder and CTO at Moxo, agrees that it’s important to plan agility improvements with an eye to how the business might evolve. “Deeply analyze your business’ current situation from multiple perspectives, including how streamlining IT efforts will impact the service model, team structure, execution capabilities and customer retention situation. From there, it’s critical to analyze which strategy for streamlining IT is best suited for business needs,” says Huang, who has overseen the automation of all workflows from onboarding to customer service.