Agile is the process digital technology needs

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In my presentation at Agile on the Beach last week I continued my discussion of Agile and Digital. It is increasingly clear that digital and agile are intrinsically linked. Specifically, business need agile processes to get the most out of digital technology. My “Agile, Digital & the new management paradigms” presentation is online but let me give you the argument here.

There is a long standing model of technology change – so widespread I can’t find the original source – which says change comes in three steps:

  1. First new technology allows the same processes and activities to be done better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently. In this stage new technology is used to do the same things, the processes and practices change little.
  2. Next new technology allows process and practices to be reconsidered and changed to make the most of new technology. Work becomes even better – whether that be faster, cheaper, higher efficiency, superior products, whatever.
  3. Finally new innovations appear because of the technology and new processes. One can see opportunities for new businesses, new business models, the next round of technology innovation and more.

So the whole thing repeats.

Look at the photo above. According to WikiCommons this is a picture of a factory at Woolwich Arsenal sometime in the 1800s. Notice the belts stretching from the ceiling to the workstations. These carried power, or to be more precise motion. Above the workers is the line shaft which turns. The shaft is driven by a central power (motion) source somewhere, probably a water wheel or a steam engine.

This is before electricity. The line shaft and the belts carry the power the factory needs to work. And they break, the longer they are the more prone to breaking they are. Factory design is constrained by the need to have straight lines for the line shaft and short distances between the shaft and the workstation. And factory design dictates layout and processes.

Then came electricity.

Electricity allowed each workstation to have its own motion generator. At first factory owners used electricity to do the same things faster and more reliably. They could dispense with the steam engine and thus the stokers and coal it needed. But at first they didn’t seize all the advantages electricity brought.

It took time to understand how a factory could be laid out more efficiently and how processes could be changed. When they did factories got even more efficient and faster. Some might argue that it took the coming of Lean manufacturing to complete these process changes.

The same story has played out in industry after industry with technology after technology. Think of Word processors: first they helped secretaries do their job faster, then processes changed and everyone wrote themselves, goodbye secretaries. Containerisation in the shipping industry is another. First ships loaded and unloaded faster. Then the shipping companies innovated but more importantly world trade innovated. Some observers claim containerisation was a more significant factor in trade globalisation than free-trade agreements.

Digital technology is like electricity. It changes business, it creates new opportunities for doing things differently. To get the most from digital technology you need new processes. Right now most companies are stuck – even happy – doing things faster. Only when they change processes will they get the full benefits.

Agile processes are that change.

Agile ways of working help companies get more from digital technologies. Without Agile companies using digital technologies are just doing the same old thing faster.

Agile started in software development for two reasons. First software developers had a lot of problems, they had the need to change. Second, programmers had the first access to digital technologies.

Ray Tomlinson, a programmer, was the first person with e-mail. Tim Berners-Lee, a programmer, had the first web-browser. Ward Cunningham, a programmer, had the first Wiki. I could continue.

Software developers created Agile because they needed to and they could.

This is why Agile is taking off in marketing.

Outside of technology itself marketing has probably been more exposed to digital technology than any other part of business. First with digital publishing then with social media. At first digital helped marketing departments do the same work faster. Next it changed what you could do entirely. Marketing is adopting agile because those processes allow marketeers to do a better job when working with new digital technology.

So forget all those arguments about agile being a better way of working (it is but never mind).

Forget all those stories of agile like processes and practices before 1998 (yes they existed but that doesn’t change things).

Forget the debate about waterfall and upfront planning versus agile and just-in-time (that is history).

All you need to know is:

  1. Digital technology is helping you do things faster/better/cheaper.
  2. Agile ways of working allow you to get more from digital tools.
  3. More innovation is coming.

Agile is the process for digital businesses.

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Image of Woolwich Arsenal factory taken from WikiCommons, no known copyright.

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