Organizational Agility: Business During Volatile Times

A vital competency during the pandemic, it will remain crucial going forward

Organizational agility has been described as the ability for organizations to maintain alignment across their departments, teams, individuals and partners, whilst maintaining transformation and innovation projects that are needed to meet new and evolving challenges.


The pace of technological change and the increasing rate of globalization pose significant threats (and opportunities) to a huge number of organizations and brands. The challenges come from all directions, not least of which is changing consumer or end-user behaviours.

In normal trading circumstances, these things already had a big impact on macroeconomic conditions. When something like a global pandemic strikes, the threats and challenges are changed, compounded and amplified all at the same time, meaning that organizations that have gone some way to solving their agility problems will be a step ahead and able to react quicker.


A seismic shift


This amplification is referenced by Marco Iansiti and Greg Richards in a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “Coronavirus Is Widening the Corporate Digital Divide.


“As workplaces mandate that employees work from home, universities shift fully to online teaching, restaurants transition to online ordering and delivery, and automakers shut down their plants, we’re seeing the most rapid organizational transformation in the history of the modern firm.”


In our industry, most brands had made the move to software tools that enabled them to achieve better organizational alignment, and hence agility, for their own processes. These range from the more corporate deployments of GSuite and Microsoft Office 365/Teams, through to tools like Slack and Workfront. In almost all cases the organizations found themselves more productive and more agile as a result.


Agencies had typically made investments in their studio systems to make their own internal processes more efficient and, in a lot of cases, to provide an interface point for the clients, typically around the review and approval of files and asset management.


Weak links exposed


However, there is a missing piece to this picture that has been highlighted and amplified by the current working conditions caused by COVID-19. The issue was always there but wasn’t necessarily causing too many problems in an environment where everyone was largely working from their offices and studios and where the workday was largely uninterrupted.


The scenarios described above can be termed “Islands of Automation”. Brands have better internal systems; agencies have better internal systems. But where the integration between the two is minimal or non-existent, processes quickly become fragmented and inefficient. This effect is only compounded by the challenges of everyone working from home full time, with the distractions of children also at home and broadband bandwidth suddenly becoming very contested. It’s no longer WFH (Working from home), it’s now WWFFH (working with family from home). What seemed simple in the office can become something to wrestle with at home.


Without properly interconnected systems, all these extra steps, no matter how small, become another problem to manage. As brands look to build-out and adjust their continuity plans, all these handoffs become another action item in a risk assessment matrix and another problem to potentially solve. Organizations are busy looking at their succession plans and making adjustments for scenarios that hadn’t been envisaged before. It’s no longer, what happens if Joe is off sick. It’s now what happens if a whole department is off, or even what happens if a whole region is off. Now, all those disconnections between the islands of automation become a training, user access and security problem to solve that likely needs input from team leaders, HR and IT to solve. When you add in the same scenarios for the agency, continuity of (quality and timely) work becomes a major issue.


More and more organizations these days are classifying their new product projects as secure and confidential. This is natural as time-to-market and innovation are key to commercial success. The need for security compounds and amplifies all the issues listed above. How can you maintain security of process, data and digital assets, maintain speed and quality and achieve this throughout the new succession planning scenarios everyone is working on and with everyone working from home, at least some of the time? Fair to say, life has changed, and the repercussions will outlive the pandemic era.


So where to now?


Fortunately, there are solutions to these issues. In finding a solution, some of the key questions for brand or operations managers to ask are: is there a way of connecting our internal tools to my agency’s tools? Can we eliminate those disconnected touchpoints? Can we reduce training and cross-training requirements by the use of automation, either internally or at the agency? Can we ingest new large digital assets into the workflow, even with people working from home? Can we maintain project security at all points in the process, even with people working from home? Is it feasible to have cross-regional succession planning?


It is possible to find solutions for organizational agility that can be implemented now, whilst in the midst of these challenging new work scenarios. But also, as business slowly gets back to normal over the next number of months, operations, procurement and IT will be adding these things as “mandatory” to their requirements documents. Just as computer hacking has mandated minimum levels of IT security, this pandemic will mandate a minimum level of supply chain agility. Life has changed.