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Keys to Fostering an Agile IT Organization

By: Chris Bedi, CIO, ServiceNow

Agility is a big deal. As companies embrace digital transformation, we have stopped defending the old ways of doing business. Instead, we focus on making sure appropriate change occurs. We reorganize people, processes and technology to empower change and drive tangible results. Organizational agility matters now and is part of the business DNA.

In IT, we are used to thinking of agility in terms of the development team. Today, it means more. CIOs need to build and present an entire agile IT organization, which requires giving some serious thought to the way the organization works. We must move to a new IT operating model.

This sounds daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. To start putting more action behind all this talk of IT agility, CIOs have to lead their teams through some fundamental shifts.

Automate everything routine
IT departments continue to fall into the same trap. Traditionally, 70-80% of IT spending goes to maintenance and upkeep of legacy systems—keeping the lights on—and only 20% on innovation to move the business forward.

Most of us have operated under cost pressures, more in some industries than others. Operating with half the IT staff, or sometimes less, is the new normal and we shouldn’t expect that to change significantly―everyone across the entire business has to do more with less. However, the business needs IT to support new initiatives in order to grow. Therein lies the rub; with limited people and time, we can’t respond because we’re too busy keeping the lights on.

It’s time we dramatically shift the 80:20 ratio; until we do so, IT will be seen as just another cost center. CIOs need to lead their IT teams to root out their own manual, repeatable processes. All the routine, menial stuff that takes up valuable IT resources should be automated so that staff can tackle productive work that requires creativity and imagination and moves the business forward1.

If a company is just starting to automate IT processes, it’s typical to start with the simplest tasks like password resets and onboarding new hires. This makes sense; on average 25% of the helpdesk calls are password related2. Resetting employees’ forgotten passwords is an easy problem for the helpdesk to fix, but it still takes time. Automate it.

Automating the simple tasks will deliver incremental improvements but, for maximum impact, tackle some of the messier stuff first. Automating complex, multi-step, highly manual activities that touch multiple people can more quickly deliver the agility needed. Routine changes, diagnostics, performance monitoring and incident resolution are a few places ripe for automation. Increasingly, machines are aware when something isn’t right. Automation should start with the creation of work (incidents in the first place). Why can’t the infrastructure and end-user machines create the incident vs. a human having to do it? To take this a step further, why can’t an intelligent machine resolve the incident once it is received? All without requiring a human to intervene.

The time we get back by automating everything that simply “makes systems work” affords IT departments the much-needed room to be agile and deliver business value.

Make sure your IT people can talk the talk

Most IT organizations struggle with talking in a language that speaks to business leaders. If IT sits down with the head of sales about a project and the question we ask is “What do you need us to do?” then we’ve become an order taker. We need to talk to stakeholders in their business terms and outcomes.

An agile IT organization needs people who have half their brain in IT and the other half in sales, marketing, finance or whichever line of business is sitting across the table. These IT people work with the business leaders to define the outcomes they are after. They seek to understand why something needs to change, not just how. This skillset is what separates leading IT organizations from the rest.

To help IT to start using the same vocabulary, one of my CIO peers started requiring all IT staffers to listen to quarterly earnings calls with analysts. That helped IT to understand the strategic goals of the business and to ask some poignant questions. It didn’t take long for this IT organization to start finding ways they could deliver results that not just align with business priorities but deliver business results.

Focus on what’s really important
As you free up IT’s time to be creative, innovative and imaginative, there will be no shortage of good ideas. CIOs know we can’t be agile at everything that comes our way.

What’s truly important will be grounded in tangible business results; what’s not will waste valuable IT time and kill agility. It is critical IT recognize the difference. As IT staff become fluent in the business language and asks the right questions, what’s important will become easier to spot.

We also need to consider that there is a difference between what is important vs. what is urgent. Urgent is putting out fires, busywork or tasks IT staff tackle first because they are easier than the project list. But urgent requests that should only take a couple of minutes end up taking an hour. At the end of the day, we’re wondering where all the time went.

What’s stopping IT agility?
As CIOs, we’re focused on driving business outcomes and strategies for growth, efficiency and productivity. As we build agile IT organizations and focus on delivering business results, we cannot overlook the legacy internal structures—down to compensation structures—that need to change too.

It comes down to fear. Fear is a show stopper for building an agile IT organization. CIOs need to have patience, train their IT teams and get them past the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Bear in mind it’s not just fear of irrelevance that derails IT agility. Having the time to innovate and take risks in IT all in the name of better business outcomes sounds great, but what happens when an idea doesn’t work? IT folks need to know it is OK to fail and that mistakes will not be a capital crime. It’s the CIO’s job to give their teams a safety net.

Building an agile IT organization will not be easy. It will be uncomfortable at times, but it will be worth the effort. The agility we build into our organizations today will ensure IT does not become the order takers of tomorrow.

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