Calling BS on… “Our technology makes your business agile”

Neil Ward-Dutton

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 by

In the quest for ever more ‘business meaningful messaging’, I’ve noticed that the concept of ‘business agility’ has become ever more commonly deployed by software and hardware vendors.

There’s nothing at all wrong with business agility as an aspirational goal, of course: no business wants to be seen to be clumsy. What I have a problem with is when said vendors attempt to draw direct connections between a technology product – which, if deployed and used well, can improve technology flexibility – and business agility. This is when things break.  “Our technology makes your business agile”, so it goes. I call BS!

Making a business – or at least, the parts of it that make sense – more agile requires you to review and be prepared to change people’s incentives, business measurement systems, skills and training plans, information sharing and collaboration practices, operating models and procedures, and management culture – and probably more. Even if we just confine ourselves to the technology domain then increasing business agility is likely to require you to review architecture, governance, portfolio and change management practices. If you don’t at least think about this stuff, then the most you might be able to do is increase potential technology flexibility.

There’s another wrinkle here, too – which is that from a business manager’s perspective (if we assume that they’re an IT layperson) it might seem perfectly reasonable to enable business change by simply investing in a toolkit of new, lightweight, easy-to-use technologies and applications and letting the ‘heritage’ systems atrophy in the background. They’ve just created a technology foundation for business agility! Haven’t they?

Well, yes and no. The key realisation here is that agility is something that – if you’re serious about it – has to be sustainable and sustained for the long haul. It’s not something you can just worry about for 6 months and then forget about.

Netting this all out, where have we got to?

Good enterprise technology – combined with a good set of technology management and strategy capabilities – are a necessary but not sufficient enabler of sustainable business agility.

Of course, that’s hardly a straplline that a software marketer is going to latch onto. Catchy it ain’t! But I do think that if you’re trying to sell enterprise technology, it pays to demonstrate to your customers that you understand the bigger picture.

What do you think – do simplistic explanations of technology value seduce people into expecting technology silver bullets? Or do have most managers and decision makers become adept at filtering this kind of stuff out unconsciously, so we can afford to ignore it?

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11 Responses to Calling BS on… “Our technology makes your business agile”

  1. Great post! I agree with your thesis, “agility” is a latent capacity to make change more easily, not a call for anarchy.

    People are inherently agile in their ability to react to an unexpected set of circumstances, but enterprise IT structures often gratuitously resist change (above and beyond cultural, political, environmental barriers that technology can’t readily mitigate).

    The automation systems and processes implemented in the last 30 years have been hugely successful, but they embed rigid schemas all over the place that make change within and across applications difficult (not to mention time consuming and expensive).

    Gratuitous change is not the point or goal, but if you can’t make change readily, you are certainly not agile – greater IT flexibility is necessary. Such agility is a sine qua non for enterprise IT to adapt with the business. This is not about rip and replace, its about enabling business and IT/development to work more productively/effectively.

    We live in a fast paced sound-byte culture – words are willfully abused to tick a checkbox – it’s dishonest. I’m glad you’re putting people’s feet to the fire, but don’t throw out the baby with the bath water – some of us actually mean what we say.

    For our part, we have re-imagined 4GL technology for the web-age. An open Framework that offers rapid app development/integration and safe run-time change so applications can adapt – technical agility that assists enterprise agility. Does it offer some powerful capabilities, yes – does it address all enterprise problems IT or otherwise, no.

    Hope we avoid your wrath :)

  2. Nick Malik says:

    Hello Neil,

    At some level, stating business agility as the tag-line for technology is absurd. You correctly point out that investing in a technical platform doesn’t provide business ability. At best, it removes obstacles that were in existing technologies… but if those obstacles were not actually the problem, then addressing them will not bring about a solution.

    On the other hand, if the customer wants to hear “business agility” and your competition is saying “business agility,” then you have to say it as well. The phrase becomes “table stakes.”

    It is useful, if for no other reason, that to force vendors to provide a story of how they actually can remove an obstacle to agility (and if they cannot, to fix their product until a legitimate story can actually be told).

    My $0.02

    — Nick

    • Neil Ward-Dutton says:

      Hi Nick –
      Thanks very much for taking the time to comment!
      As usual you make a very reasoned argument.
      However I’m not sure that “everyone is saying it, so we have to as well” is really a good enough argument. Good enterprise software marketing, combined with good product, shouldn’t be founded on ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, but should find new ways to entice customers that will also ultimately help them deliver value from technology.

  3. Neil:

    We couldn’t agree with you more.

    You are right, technology alone doesn’t solve a company’s problems, nor does it “instantly” make your company agile. You need to have a planned approach, proven methodologies, and an implementation strategy. This is why IBM Software Group partnered with IBM Global Business Services last spring on the “Roadmap to Agility” offering. We currently have over 1000 practitioners trained in BPM methodology, and over 500 business partners. In addition, we have just announced the release of 7000 pages of best practices on BPM implementations for our partners to leverage, further solidifying our vision that process improvement has been, is, and always will be a combination of software plus expertise. We have defined BPM as requiring technology plus methodology for almost six years now, as well. Thank you for clarifying this important point with your post.

    Dave Marquard,
    Manager, IBM BPM Product Marketing

    • Neil Ward-Dutton says:

      Thanks very much for commenting Dave!
      I think the BPM vendors (including IBM and Lombardi before) are actually in a good place here – as you rightly point out, the leaders are careful to highlight how approach, method and so on are crucial to success; it can’t be primarily about the tools. “A fool with a tool is still a fool”, and so on.
      This blog actually came out of a conversation with a group of architects at a client, which was principally about how to ‘sell’ the value of integration technology and SOA to their business sponsor(s) – they were parrotting some stuff they’d heard, and we had an interesting back-and-forth about how important it is to explicitly recognise the limits of technology and highlight how a broader initiative has to be pulled together if real business agility is going to be possible.

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  5. Neil, obviously if I buy the same clubs as Tiger Woods I still won’t play like him. But he would neither play with a cheap set. It is equally wrong to ignore technology and believe that methodology or training alone improves processes. Agile BPM requires a governance bureacracy as everyone will tell you and that will kill the dynamics.

    technology beceomes essential if management feels that it can utilize the power of social interaction and therefore can let go enough to empower its people. If that is the goal, technology will make or break it. BPMN doesn’t offer empowerment. Yes, if the management style isn’t right then the technology will be a dud too. Ideally we can get out of the project implementation rut and prvide process empowerment that lets the 10% of people who usually are the social drivers roam free.

    I do however advocate that this kind of freedom must also come with a top-down transparency in which targets and goals are defined and customer outcomes are measured. I seriously doubt the benefit of monetary incentives. People rather want security, recognition and autonomy. Just as empowerment needs authority, goals and means.

    • I agree with you Max, but I’m exasperated by the number of organisations I still run into that believe they *can* buy the same clubs as Tiger Woods, and that that will mean they deliver the same result.

      These “Calling BS on…” blogs I’m posting are typically the result of exasperation!

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  7. Bravo!!! LOL!!!

    Maybe fifteen years ago or so such BS did fly…with those who did not know or understand the recursive relationship between business and IT. Today’s IT managers are more savvy and educated in business, architecture, structure, processes, governance, etc. For such a statement to roll off the lips (fingertips of pen) of a vendor is an insult to intelligence.

    Software and hardware are only resources that when purchased and configured according to the needs and direction of the organization are assets that assist in reaching the goal; components of the overarching plan.

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