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May 27, 2021

Enterprise Agility: What does Business As Usual look like in 2021?

The shocks and disruptions caused by the start of the global pandemic in 2020 sent reverberations around industries, economies, and society, and provided the prime testing ground for the concept of enterprise agility. Enterprise agility is a broad term which in this context describes a company’s ability to swiftly adapt to its business environment based on feedback from stakeholders, operational data, and changes in market demands - the latter being the most prominent in the early stages of the pandemic. When the severity of Covid-19 became apparent, businesses had to rapidly adapt their operating models, shifting to a remote, distributed way of working within hours, and challenging many of the workflows and processes previously in operation. There were no policies or processes in place to fail over to. No manuals or best practices to accomplish the task successfully - organizations just had to adapt, and quickly.

Granted, some of these changes may have already been on the strategic roadmap, but the real question here is, more than a year down the line, what level of longevity will we see in maintaining this pace of change and innovation? Are we now operating in a “new normal”, or will organizations revert to old habits? Is that even possible in today’s environment, or is this new digitally-driven operational model now the foundation for future productivity? Lastly, what operational structures were in place to differentiate the companies that were able to quickly adapt to a new way of working, compared to those that weren’t so prepared?

The concept of enterprise agility has never been as heavily road tested as in 2020, with leadership having to become directly engaged in decisions impacting the entire company operating model. All organizations, previously faced with market pressures to adapt and respond to competition and pace have now had to adapt with the fastest adaptors, with the level of agility becoming a competitive differentiator in itself. In that regard, the pandemic can be seen as a living example of the power and influence of true enterprise agility. While some organizations focused on the need to batten down the hatches and weather the storm with existing products and services, others were able to see the opportunity of the accelerated change environment to totally rethink, innovate, and transform their operations to the new world of work.

As rapid and accelerating developments in technology, customer preferences, and employee expectations influence our everyday lives, the gulf between surviving and thriving is becoming increasingly apparent. Building agility into the fabric of an organization allows it to operate at a faster rate, with more responsiveness, productivity, and engagement, delivering higher returns and reduced costs to stakeholders. What was highlighted in 2020 was that these agility principles must be applied across the entire organization - hence, the term enterprise agility - even if the vast majority of change has some level of technical enablement. It’s clear to see that we are all consumers, and in many cases, producers, of technology, and so transformation and adaptability need to be seen through an enterprise lens to unlock value across the organization, from IT to product development, to marketing, to operations. We are seeing three main areas of focus for this: culture, data, and stability.

Agility can therefore lead to great adaptability - but how can it be bottled into a methodology or way of working? A lot of this is linked to culture. Often, it doesn’t matter how great the methodology is - if it’s pointed in the wrong direction, or not supported nor understood by employees, it can be the biggest waste of all. This is why it’s important to think outside of the realm of technology and focus instead on what you are trying to achieve as an organization. Wellbeing and culture are central organizational facets that, alongside technology, will determine how adaptive you are as an organization, and, crucially, how you communicate through your organization, the latter being crucial to adoption. A lot of these capabilities, just like remote orchestration, have been enhanced and built upon as a result of lockdown, and so this stands as another example of the pandemic bringing factors necessary for enterprise agility to the fore. Unless that culture of communication and transparency is there, organizational alignment will be difficult. If you truly want to make an entire organization agile, the majority of employees need to know what is coming down the pipeline to anticipate and be prepared to embrace change, rather than expect benefits and new value to be delivered by magic, or, worse, enforced. By anticipating change, much like on an organizational level, they can be prepared, too.

Secondly, data. It’s no shock that data is king in a crisis. What has differentiated organizations during this time is the insight into operations and observability into processes and workflows, allowing organizations to equip themselves with a much more fluid, flexible structure fit for rapid adaptability and scaling. For companies to survive, they are continuously evolving to market pressures and changes, with clients expecting new products and upgraded services all of the time. During 2020, leadership across the enterprise came out of their silos to dynamically adapt operating models to deliver these goods and services. Data is central to that capability and these ways of working are not exclusive to a crisis. Enterprise agility on that basis goes hand in hand with observability - more people can then consume and understand the strategic roadmap of change.

Lastly, enterprise agility strikes a fine balance between the concepts of stability and dynamic change. On the one hand, the right structures, cultures, and insight provide the buffer needed to mitigate risk and prepare for change or disruption. On the other, having fluidity provides the springboard for future adaptations, innovations, and change drivers to differentiate from the competition. This shouldn’t be confused with efficiency, which is too often focused on the cost of agility. Covid-19 has taught us that we need to balance efficiency drives with the pillars of resilience and agility. That way, the efficiency side of the spectrum can support the business with repeatable, scalable processes, whilst the agile side provides the organization with the platform to thrive in disruption, just like we’ve all come to be familiar with over the course of the last year. Creating an environment that allows your business to adapt at a rapid pace means that companies can identify, prepare for, and respond to disruptions as opportunities with the fewest possible ramifications. This is based on a culture of risk and reinvention, qualities that have become foundational to survival in a post-pandemic world.

With volatility becoming the new norm, and disruption around every corner, the pace of change is only accelerating. We are now having to adapt and change our ways of thinking and working, building structures to support a more malleable, responsive organization. That’s why 2020 provided such a looking glass into the foundations laid down already and the work left to be done. More importantly, we’ll come to see in the coming months what longevity these adaptations will have - which companies will continue this approach to stay ahead of the curve, and which have built those structures purely out of the necessity to survive? As with many functions, there was already a quiet evolution of enterprise agility bubbling under the surface, which has been spearheaded by the response to the pandemic. Now that more organizations and senior leaders are behind it, importantly seeing it in a frame beyond the traditional IT challenge, they are building the internal innovation frameworks to adapt. It may have taken something cataclysmic to take technology out of its silo, but it’s certainly done its job and allowed organizations of all sizes to rethink their approach. The key now is to make sure that we don’t revert back to old ways of working and former habits. Adapting operating models at pace is going to be one of the biggest differentiators in business moving forward, and will set apart those that have the structures in place to be continuously transformative, and those that don’t.

Richard Bell
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