Making IT more agile


Successful CIOs in the digital era manage multiple expectations and create a flexible IT platform for fast-changing business demands. Agile technology is crucial for engineering specialist Babcock, a firm that is looking to use IT systems as a platform for sustained profit and business growth.

Tim Welburn, IT director of Babcock's marine technology division, has helped introduce Picasso, a group-led IT project across the past 18 months that has set in stone a method to rip and replace organisation-wide technology systems.

IT Pro caught up with Welburn at the recent international user conference of software specialist IFS in Gothenburg, Sweden. Here, Welburn provides his top five tips for CIOs looking to push business transformation through the introduction of agile IT.

1. Build a very solid platform

Welburn says CIOs looking to create an agile approach to IT must ensure the foundations are strong. Your first priority, he says, must be a modern, rigid IT platform that will not fall over.

"Without concentrating on the groundwork, everything else will falter rapidly," says Welburn, who advises IT leaders to pay particular attention to support and security considerations. Underlying standards will also be crucial. The Babcock Picasso initiative eschewed any attempt to improve legacy technology and instead involved the purchase of fresh IT resources.

The final set up draws on a new data centre, wireless area network, service desk, and also includes provisioning for new software and licences. The firm is currently introducing IFS Applications 8 in order to create a single instance of enterprise resource planning across the business.

"Even if you are operating in a smaller market place, being more agile and being able to change your systems and processes quickly is always better for the business. And standards, which might seem like a form of restrictive governance, always make it easier for the business to be agile," says Welburn.

2. Understand why you are trying to be more agile

Agility might mean increased flexibility but CIOs will still need to ensure the reasons for IT transformation are inflexible. Too many IT change projects fail to succeed due to a lack of clarity. CIOs must understand fully why agile IT makes sense.

"What does agility actually mean to your business?" asks Welburn, referring to the question he believes all CIOs must act as they move towards IT-led transformation. Successful change initiatives, says Welburn have a golden thread running through the initiative from start to finish, where IT strategy is intertwined with business expectations.

"Implementing any new technology, including agile IT, is expensive. Most CIOs are under pressure budget-wise, so you need to know why agile IT matters to the future of the business," he says.

Welburn says the business case for agile in regards to Babcock relates to business growth. The organisation continues to grow quickly and is keen to acquire other firms. Agile IT provides a means to provide a foundation to integrate firms quickly and to change front-end systems in line with new business demands.

3. Put people at the top of your agenda

CIOs are plagued by demands for innovation, while being charged to ensure operational IT is safe and steady. Balancing new and existing elements is no easy task, but Welburn says technology chiefs looking to work in a more agile manner must meet the challenge head-on.

"Business as usual is very different from business transformation," he says. CIOs looking to change IT need to ensure they have the people expertise to help drive the creation of a successful change programme.

"You need to have the right balance of skills," says Welburn. If you are mainly using internal IT staff for a programme, ensure you also have trusted external partners that you can draw on as the demands for a particular project change.

"Make sure your people resources are secure," says Welburn. "Business transformation is complicated. Give yourself, and your organisation, time. Don't try to rush change, or try to become more agile as quickly as possible."

4. Bring everyone in the organisation with you

Movement towards an IT change programme can sometimes seem like a circuitous journey. Multiple demands from across the organisation can mean CIOs attempting to create agile IT can quickly become lumbered with too many conflicting requests. The key to success, says Welburn, is straightforward communication.

"Your executive team needs to be brought along on the path towards transformation, so that they always know what is happening in the project," he says. The significance of specific project milestones must be communicated and comprehended. And there must be, says Welburn, a seamless welding of technology tools with business benefits.

Young internal engineers, with a technology-savvy approach, will understand the benefits of a change towards agile IT. CIOs must ensure other business managers buy in to the transformation programme and that they appreciate the wider, and potentially, long-term benefits of the project for the organisation.

"You need to focus on more than just return on investment," he says. "You need to take a sophisticated systems approach and to demonstrate to your executive peers how standardisation and agility can create business benefits."

5. Be very clear about your end point

Successful technology projects meet an identified organisational priority. Welburn advises peers to work closely with line-of-business executives. Such conversations should ensure the wider aims of the organisation are made explicit and that a series of stepping stones towards project realisation are created.

"Go for manageable chunks," he says. "As you move along with the project implementation, you must ensure the end point for the wider business is always in-mind. Make sure you and your team understand the business journey towards agile IT."

The approach, says Welburn, should be like a consultancy engagement. Elements of the initiative should be held up to the business and implemented when all parties are satisfied. Such appraisals should help executives understand what is achievable technologically and in what time frame.

"CIOs need to help the business understand how much change the organisation can be expected to cope with in regards to a cultural transformation," says Welburn. "Always be honest and realistic."

Mark Samuels
Freelance journalist

Mark Samuels is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology. For the past two decades, he has produced extensive work on subjects such as the adoption of technology by C-suite executives.

At ITPro, Mark has provided long-form content on C-suite strategy, particularly relating to chief information officers (CIOs), as well as digital transformation case studies, and explainers on cloud computing architecture.

Mark has written for publications including Computing, The Guardian, ZDNet, TechRepublic, Times Higher Education, and CIONET. 

Before his career in journalism, Mark achieved a BA in geography and MSc in World Space Economy at the University of Birmingham, as well as a PhD in economic geography at the University of Sheffield.