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The Unique Challenges of Being Agile In a Large Global Corporate

By Charles Thompson, Chief Information Officer, Vanguard Investments Australia


Charles Thompson, Chief Information Officer, Vanguard Investments Australia

When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object in an organisation, that’s when those of us in technology face some of our greatest challenges.

At present, there are no greater challenges for many multi-national organisations than the immovable object of globalisation and the unstoppable force of Agile.

With the rapid development of sophisticated communication and collaboration tools, the world has effectively become smaller for both our businesses and our clients. As a consequence we’re seeing the globalisation of corporates becoming more prevalent and happening more quickly than we’ve seen in the past.

For those IT leaders who work in such organisations, it’s something we absolutely need to adapt to.

As more entrepreneurs emerge with a keen eye on disruption,their ability to deliver new product and capability to market quickly will becomeeither one of their greatest strengths or one of their biggest weaknesses.

Moreover, it’s not merely good enough to deliver things quickly: you need to be able to get client feedback immediately and respond with changes. It was not that long ago we expected software releases annually or quarterly, and now the expectation is often in days or weeks.

It’s astounding to think how much has changed in terms of Agile in the last 20 years, and how quickly it will continue to evolve. For instance, I started as a developer delivering firmware for microcontrollers. It was the complete antithesis of Agile:when you discovered a bug it wasn’t enough to fix and test it, you had to wipe the chip clean by putting it in an ultraviolet chamber for around 10 minutes, before you could reprogram. It wasactually a requirement to be physically present to deploy your code.

By the early 2000s I had moved to server side Java development and became heavily involved in Agile, specifically Extreme Programming. Back then it felt like more of an experiment, and it was an absolute oddity forour stakeholders to see atechnology team co-located, changing roles as needed and working off physical story cards.

Nowadays, different flavours of Agile are prevalent. I would go as far as to say Agile is something our clients and business partners expect: without it, you’re just too slow.

So how does this work in a large global corporate? How do you successfully drive Agile behaviours, particularly if you’re in a different country and / or timezone from yourhead office? 

Most organisations centralise a lot of their common Dev Ops capabilities (Tools, Environments, DBAs, Infrastructure), co-located around their main corporate centre. This is only natural and makes complete sense from the perspective of standardising practices and building strong shared services capabilities, but there are a number of challenges organisations need to address in these circumstances.

It’s okay to centralise the management and governance of Dev Ops, but you should never stifle the ability of all teams to innovate and improve. Yes, there are some clear benefits fromhaving a central engineering team, but innovation and continuous improvement need to come from everyone. 

Development teams should have a degree of autonomy to pursue their own ideas and incubate new concepts. If they work, consider adopting them more broadly. If they don’t, then they’ve failed safely.

BreakingIT departments into small teams of five to ten people and assigning them a clear area of business to focus on can be an effective tactic. Small teams with a broad range of skills spanning design, analysis, development and testing can be flexible and Agile, but they work best when they have a clear purpose. This may mean they have a leadership role to play for an entire system, or just a module.

Regardless, if the business outcome they are supporting is clear and tangible,teams like these can be more efficient.  Many organisations fall into the trap of commoditising IT work and spreading it around functional areas, but every individual needs to be engaged with the value their work represents to the end client.

Lastly, rotations across large organisations help dramatically. The world moves too quickly now for teams to become too wedded to a particular technology or business domain. It’s okay to have passionate technical experts on particular aspects of their field, but even then it helps to have them apply it across different projects or business problems. This is obviously more difficult in organisations spread across wider geographies, but it’s almost more important in those instances. Cultural diversity is extremely valuable, and if you have it within your organisation you should use it.

None of these things are easy, but you would not expect them to be when we’re working in such a highly competitive industry which changes all the time. Those IT organisations and business units that face the difficult challenges by embracing the breadth of their teams stand to gain the most.

Because without the right people and a flexible, responsive framework for them to operate in, you may find your organisation will be in the firing line as that unstoppable force as it hurtles towards the immovable object.

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