Business Agility Layer – the Answer to IT Obesity

I have devoted a lot of my posts to discussing the notion of what it is to be a ‘Social Enterprise’ or, now that that term is no longer being used, the ‘Socially connected enterprise’. But how do you get there? And how do you stay there when everything around you – and within your company – is evolving so rapidly.  Well, crucial to getting there and staying there is the ‘Business Agility Layer’  – a valuable notion that I believe is the cure to the problem of IT obesity. This post will explore what this ‘layer’ looks like and what form it takes in a day-to-day technology context. 

What is IT obesity?

Many organizations suffer from IT obesity.

It’s remarkable how the problem of IT obesity has emerged in parallel with the prevalence of obesity among humans (maybe IT tells us more about our characters than we’d care to admit?)  The last few decades have seen a huge increase in the complexity of IT systems. Today, many generations of infrastructure and software operate alongside each other, intertwined like a plate of spaghetti. As the role and value of IT has increased, we have added new functionalities and we have added new technologies. The operative word in all of this is ‘added’. Very little ‘subtracting’ or ‘consolidating’ has taken place during this time.  So now consider how many new technologies have been developed in the last couple of decades, how many times business needs have changed. Living proof of how things have changed exists in almost every enterprises’ IT landscape, with data centers resembling ‘journeys through time’. Today, IT decision makers are weighed down by this history – unable to maneuver or innovate due to the sheer complexity and weight of the IT landscape. Think of this using the obesity analogy… IT has become so fat that the business can no longer run or change direction as and when it needs to.

Throw into this unhealthy mix an economic crisis and all of the additional pressures that departments face during a downturn (reduce cost at all cost), and it doesn’t make for a pretty picture.

In many cases, IT became the inhibiter of change.

As a result of this IT obesity, the disconnect between business and IT has become more profound, with business coming to see IT as an impediment to positive change within the business. While the business calls out for solutions to its rapidly evolving challenges, IT is often found to be slow to react, engrossed instead in deploying the latest release or version of a traditional software solution. In this way, the business-IT divide has evolved from being organizational, to being political as well. Where no alignment with the business exists, the IT department goes about its own business, and in the process, continues to suffer from IT obesity.

Sounds awfully grim doesn’t it? Don’t despair – there is hope!

Cloud technology is the answer.

There is a light shining at the end of this seemingly very dark tunnel. Cloud computing technology has opened a world of new possibilities and has breathed new life into the business-technology relationship. Thanks in no small part to this paradigm-changing technology, the notion of business-enabling IT is, once again, a reality. Anytime anywhere connectivity, cloud economies of scale and a host of other new technologies, have come together and created the conditions for the emergence of the business agility layer. And while this doesn’t remedy all the IT ills of the past in one single act, this layer can be spread across the existing legacy IT landscape, adding a degree of flexibility and interconnection that would otherwise be impossible. This business agility layer serves as a link between old and new, and enables pent-up demand from the business to be satisfied without the daunting obstacle of having to delve too deep into the deep-and-complex legacy IT landscape. Now the potential exists to effectively combine old and new – core IT systems for the stable processes, and rapidly deployable cloud-based apps to support business users wherever they are and on whatever device they are using at the time.

Business are already embracing digital transformation as an outside-in innovation.

Prompted by the rise in social media technology and quick-and-easy-to-deploy apps, marketing and sales departments have already begun to bypass the traditional route through IT and have instead started taking matters into their own hands.

With the need to ‘listen’ to what is happening in the social media domain, integrating these technologies has taken on paramount importance.  This can be seen as an ‘outside-in’ approach and, in many cases, is serving to deepen and widen the divide between business and IT. This is also resulting in the growing perception that IT is failing the business by not being able to integrate these highly relevant tools fast enough. Most IT departments I meet are still unable to achieve the shift in mentality that is required by technologies such as cloud and social media.

End-to-end process innovation. Apply ‘the art of the possible’.

IT can, though, be part of the solution to this problem. This does, though require a dramatic change in mentality. IT occupies a unique position within the business because it is capable of adding value at literally all levels of the business… provided, that is, that it adopts the right mentality. By overcoming the fear of these new technologies, IT can re-invent itself and go from being and inhibitor of change to an enabler of transformation. IT can create a new vision on architecture, namely a hybrid application landscape that combines cloud platforms with on-premise applications. The options are certainly out there in the form of SaaS solutions: Salesforce.com, Oracle (Fusion) On Demand, SAP On Demand and Microsoft Cloud, and even Google Enterprise Apps.

I make no secret of the fact that I see Salesforce.com as the game changer in all of this – where they lead, others tend to follow. This is certainly the case with sales and marketing and, as outlined in an earlier post of mine (The Ripple Effect of Social HR) the same is now happening in HR.

Business Agility Layer through PaaS.

But the Agility Layer is starting to spread below just ‘apps’ level and deeper into the IT landscape. Cloud based Platform as a Service (PaaS) can also be seen to e playing the role of the business agility layer. Force.com, Microsoft Azure, as well as powerful tools like Cordys, Mendix,  OrangeScape (to name just a few), are acting as enabling technologies and providing the means by which IT landscapes can get themselves back into shape again.

So it’s possible. But what does it take to get there?

There’s no excuse for enterprise IT to be out of shape.

Given the technology options available today, there is no reason for IT to continue to be seen as the inhibitor of change within the enterprise. Re-invention is a bold step, but it’s one that’s worth taking. It does, though, take an ‘Enlightened CIO’ to embark upon, and successfully complete this journey. Board-room level support is also key to make the transition. I know that most organizations I speak to won’t be able to achieve this transformation easily. I fear that the issue of IT obesity is not yet seen as a life-threatening disease (similar to real life?). Most CIO’s are – and I apologise for this harsh expression – not enlightened but frightened, focusing instead on survival, on ‘keeping the lights on’, instead of taking the bold but worthwhile step of driving change and embracing the art of the possible. While fear of change is understandable, we should be asking ourselves this important question.

How much longer can you afford to wait before you get left behind… for good?

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