Why an Agile Business-led Approach is Essential for the Digital Age

By Mark Dickson, The Open Group Architecture Forum Director

Agile teams drive the enterprise’s digital transformation by inventing new business models, delivering superior customer experience, developing digital products and architecting highly-automated operating systems.

Now, technology is ingrained in everyday life and an overwhelming number of businesses are adopting digital into their operations. Agile teams have never been so important. The digital age is growing, and in order for the digital enterprise to accelerate and enhance business operations, an agile business-led approach is essential.

Utilizing Agile

A growing number of organizations are adopting agile into their business models. This growing appetite among businesses shows that there is still opportunity for Agile to grow and for companies to continue to highlight its benefits. Research shows that 71% of companies are adopting Agile, and while the adoption has helped 98% of companies, there is room for continued adoption and improvement.

However, with the adoption of Agile in both IT and non-IT lines of business increasing considerably in recent times, this might not simply be the culmination of a long-term trend. For many, the parity between those two areas might be more surprising than the speed of the increase, which could be attributed to the impact of the pandemic. That parity is also reflected in the reasons for adopting Agile, where an IT-specific purpose (accelerating software delivery) and a non-IT reason (managing changing priorities) were identified as the joint most important factors.

All of this points to the fact that, while almost every business might now be using Agile practices, those practices are not limited to the software development purposes that Agile was originally created for. Instead, Agile is growing throughout organizations as a strategic priority as digital enterprises recognize its need. Although, communicating and implementing Agile methodologies will need to be rethought and reformulated as it comes to operate on that scale.

Embracing Agile

Last year’s The Open Group Digital-First event, Société Général and Fidelity Investments discussed their experiences using Agile to improve the client experience, noted the shift of Agile towards being a wider organizational principle, not just a development methodology. In both cases, what started as an IT-led initiative became an enterprise-wide transformation spanning the business.

In practice, this meant embracing new business models (such as teams focused on certain value chains rather than certain business functions), developing governance processes (such as flattening chains of command using spaces for candid debate), and changing assumptions about investment and return (such as developing more flexible ways to allocate resources to projects). By adopting Agile in this way, digital enterprises are able to re-evaluate organizational models and adapt to the digital age.

Managing Agile

While embracing Agile is critical for businesses in the digital age, and the experiences of businesses like these teach us that Agile does have valuable applications well beyond explicitly software-development focused areas of work, the point remains of how to manage Agile at scale. With a new perspective on how they act and organize, teams spanning the breadth of an organization can operate in a more digitally-native way and make better use of digital tools.

Although, it would be a mistake to think that simultaneously, the solution to today’s vexing business challenges is to duplicate the Agile culture already endemic to software development across the organization. If, at heart, Agile is about establishing teams which are self-organizing and so have greater agency to take action, we are aware that it carries the risk of creating inconsistencies between different teams’ approaches. This has the possibility to lead to internal incompatibilities and therefore inflexible outcomes which could impact future change.

A handful of software development teams might be able to informally avoid this problem, but as the situation scales up to tens or hundreds of semi-autonomous groups, formal coordination is essential to ensure positive holistic outcomes come from local decisions.

As Agile flows out beyond its IT wellspring and more different kinds of work are called on to feed into an aligned strategy, it’s an issue which will inherently become more known. For Société Général and Fidelity Investment, along with a growing number of other organizations, the solution was to introduce an architecture standard to make it possible to harmonize different streams of work. This is where The Open Group Open Agile Architecture™ (O-AA) Standard is important as it’s tailored to the demands of enterprises which need to support Agile at scale. O-AA provides toolkits and frameworks to guide organizations in enabling and encouraging agility across the business, while avoiding silos or losing sight of the wider business environment.

There has been a significant swell of rapid Agile adoption over the last two years. As we get deeper into the digital age, and digital enterprises further encourage Agile into business operations, the next wave of Agile headlines might be all about how enterprises are making it part of the fabric of their business, not just something practiced by individual teams. What’s more, having this standardized Agile business-led approach means that digital enterprises will be more equipped to work together to embrace new technologies and advance operations, essential for the digital age.