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For true digital transformation, businesses must embrace agility

Jeanne Ross on Agility

Today, most companies are confronting the reality of how to integrate digital into their business. Jeanne Ross, MIT Sloan Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Information Systems Research (CISR), conducts academic research focused on the challenges of senior-level executives. Engaging CISR’s 100 global sponsor companies in her research, she is in a unique position to understand the intersection of business and IT.

Ross recently participated in a Harvard Business Review webinar in which she talked about leveraging agile IT for digital transformation. According to Ross, “agile” is the buzzword of the moment, and it means the ability to adapt and respond to market opportunities. Agility is especially important for traditional companies that are going digital, because “what made them successful in the past is not necessarily going to make them successful going forward,” says Ross.

The digital path forward
In the past, IT was designed to tackle specific, immediate problems, instead of looking at the business holistically. In other words, it created silos instead of capability. That won’t work today, because of how interconnected everything is. According to Ross, the path to digital success means the abandonment of silos and the development of what she calls an operational backbone, which includes standard processes and shared data, applications, and technology.

According to her CISR research, only 28% of companies have this operational backbone, and this statistic has remained constant for 11 years. Why? Humans have to change the way they behave to get the IT changes they want. “The system is designed to support optimal behavior.” says Ross.

How to implement business agility
So, what are the changes we humans need to make? First, companies have to decide what their most important business goals are, and then design their IT around them. They need a roadmap for where they’re headed long-term, instead of short-term. Lastly, they need data-based evidence that they’ve met the goals they outlined in the beginning.

For companies seeking to embrace agility as part of their digital transformation, Ross advises the following:

  1. Ownership of living assets: If you created an asset, you have to take ownership of it and think of yourself as the mini-CEO of that asset.
  2. Small, cross-functional teams: Divide and conquer by splitting the overall task into smaller components. Each team needs a clear mission, knowledge sharing, and architectural standards.
  3. Minimum viable product: Create a product with just enough features to know if it will work. If your feedback shows it’s a failure, drop it immediately instead of trying to fix it.
  4. User-centered design: In an increasingly digital world, products need to be designed intuitively, for the use of everyday people.
  5. Customer engagement: Build ongoing and loyal relationships with your customers.
  6. DevOps: Evolve and improve products quickly by testing immediately.
  7. Test and learn culture: It’s okay to get it wrong. Embrace a culture of try and try again.

You can view the webinar here.

Jeanne Ross is Principal Research Scientist at MIT CISR.

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