Benchmarking IT Agility – How Do You Stack Up?

Is your IT “agile” enough?

It’s a question that occupies many of today’s IT decision-makers. To some, “IT agility” is the ability to respond to the rising demands of the business. To others, it’s the capacity to steer the organization through a fast-changing competitive landscape.

Whatever the definition, it’s a tough question to answer without a proper benchmark. An IT leader may understand the fundamentals of agile infrastructure. But lacking clear, measurable targets makes it difficult to decide if, how or when to adopt them.

A recent Softchoice study found that 59% of IT executives are confident in their ability to set a course for agile IT. Yet, the same study found 66% of organizations lacked clear metrics for gauging IT agility or the business impact of IT-led innovations.

Our survey included Innovation Executive Forum (IEF) members from small, mid-market and enterprise organizations across North America. Respondents from many industries shared their insights on achieving agile IT.

At our IEF Conference Call for Q4, our hosts Richard Carson, Partner Marketing Manager for Hybrid IT and Erika van Noort, IEF Chair, shared the key findings. Read on to find out where members fall on the IT agility journey today. And, better understand how you stack up with your peers.

Innovation Strategy, Meet Reality…

Managing expectations is a major aspect of day-to-day life as an IT leader. Often this means striking a balance between the strategy on paper and the reality on the ground.

The business often calls on IT to “innovate.” This often means delivering projects that get products or services to market faster. Our survey found about 50% of senior executives believed in using technology for this purpose.

Most IT groups in our study, though, devoted 30% of their time (or less) to initiatives for improving efficiency or competitiveness. For one IEF member on the call, even that figure seemed high. The consensus? There is a clear gap between enthusiasm for innovation and the ability to take time away from core IT functions.

As one participant argued, “there is an ongoing theme in IT of innovating versus sustaining.” To-date, many of our respondents have struggled to move the needle.

Where innovation has taken place, lack of actionable metrics has caused further problems. One member of the restaurant sector noted that business leaders had taken a lead in sponsoring technology projects.

“But there isn’t that discipline,” they explained. “When X goes well, you can’t prove it was ‘tech project Y’ that did it.”  Without benchmarks, it’s difficult to measure the return on investments in agile infrastructure. It also raises the difficulty of justifying future initiatives.

“If things are going well business-wise, there hasn’t been a need for more than an anecdotal measure,” said the member. “But we’re waiting for the day the tide shifts – and the team needs to justify these things.”

Agile IT is Coming, Ready or Not

There’s no doubt among IT leaders that business demands are growing. Organizations feel the pressure to get new applications, products, and services to market faster. Often, they pass those concerns onto IT.

Fifty-four percent of IT leaders in our survey has processes in place to capture emerging technology needs. Yet many have a “technology posture” preventing them from achieving IT agility. Sixty-three percent were running their data centers in the same way they had done for a decade or more.

For 56% of respondents, meeting business demands is difficult, or impossible, with the technology on-hand. Meanwhile, public cloud and hybrid IT offer scale and security that traditional architecture can’t match.

One of our hosts surmised that many organizations have adopted a “cloud-first” philosophy. This notion treats the public cloud as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to every infrastructure need. But cloud-first often fails to account for the unique needs and characteristics of each organization. While new applications and services benefit, legacy systems fall further behind.

“Not all businesses were born in the last five years,” another participant remarked. “As such, a lot of them are carrying legacy technology.” For one public broadcaster, converting years-worth of tape for the cloud was too expensive. As a result, a total migration to the cloud wasn’t in the cards.

Nonetheless, there are several motivating factors for those maintaining the status quo. Our agility study found 84% of respondents viewed automation as the top driver for change in the legacy data center. There is a powerful appeal to redirecting time and resources away from repetitive manual tasks toward strategic initiatives.

The second-place driver for change at 81% was the ability to scale services and applications faster. As one participant remarked, “we talk about scale fast, but it’s also about ‘fail fast.” Being able to fail at speed and redirect energy to more productive avenues is a clear competitive advantage.

IT Agility – Recognizing the “People Factor”

One of the biggest challenges facing IT leaders is finding and keeping top talent. But doing so will be a key strategy for any organization looking to adopt and sustain an agile IT practice into the future. The way to go about this isn’t always obvious.

On the question of changing the way IT supports applications in the data center within the next year, our survey yielded mixed results. But on the question of whether roles and structure would change to meet technology demands, there was clear agreement.

The hypothesis? There is a desire among IT leaders to maintain a steady state. But they also recognize the need to change their approach to people, structure, and culture to stay competitive.

In fact, 62% of respondents felt their team lacked the skills to deliver agile infrastructure in the data center. Nonetheless, only a small number of respondents had a well-defined plan in place to staff and train people to meet these changing needs.

Despite understandable apprehensions, the transition to a new approach need not be painful. Their organization had made the transition to 100% Azure public cloud after operating in a hybrid model for a year. At first, IT staff worried their roles would become redundant. But in the end, the migration expanded their skill sets and helped personnel across networking, systems and security groups to work as a unit.

Another participant reported evidence that more businesses are adopting initiatives like “self-serve” training. Allowing staff to spend self-directed time on topics of interest is one of many ways to correct for skills gaps and improve engagement. It also helps to shift development away from a pure focus on tech certifications toward more modern, well-rounded use cases.

“As we see more IT leaders moving into the business,” explained one guest, “there’s a greater need for these soft skills.”

Get Started – Putting Agile IT into Practice

The cloud will be an integral part of modernizing any IT environment. However, as IT leaders take a step back from a “cloud first” strategy it warrants a closer look at modernizing the data center to achieve true Agile IT. Looking to future of infrastructure investments, few IT leaders are sprinting to the cloud. Our survey found only 30% were planning to adopt a pure public cloud strategy.

For the great majority, a hybrid infrastructure will be the best path to IT agility. A hybrid model combines the advantages of the cloud with purpose-built governance and management tools. To get there, IT leaders will need a thorough understanding of their current environment, then chart the course to a more agile future.

Improving IT agility isn’t an either/or proposition – it’s a continuum. With the Softchoice Agile IT Benchmark, you’ll gain an in-depth view of your current application architecture. From there, you’ll build your hybrid IT strategy based on data-driven insights and expert guidance. 

The Art of the Possible: Be the Technology Orchestrator

The CIO has an impact far beyond technology: they set the organizational direction, they contribute to customer focus, and they drive business excellence across all verticals. We call this role the Technology Orchestrator.

The emergence of cloud and subscription services, as well as the platform economy, have increased the pressures on IT departments. As the orchestrators of this digital innovation, CIOs are now agents and mediators for new solutions.

Above all, the CIO is a strategic business leader, and the role extends far beyond IT. The CIO doesn’t only identify the unique value proposition for an organization, they also develop the plan to implement it. By understanding key challenges and environmental factors, the CIO can get to the heart of what technology can do for a business.

There are five key elements in today’s rapidly-evolving technical landscape: the cloud, mobility, information, integration, and identity and security. Each of these elements is made possible by networks. Each also provides a clear example of the ways in which the power of the network can bring people together. The CIO, as Technology Orchestrator, manages and directs the network to support existing connections, and develop new ones.

  • By 2019, there will be 10 billion mobile-connected devices
  • By 2019, 80% of organizations will use the public cloud for storage and applications
  • By 2020, 30 billion IoT devices will be connected to the internet.

We are at the cusp of a significant change in network technology, driven by mobile devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), and above all, a desire for cloud-based storage and applications. Existing Wide Area Network (WAN) technology is unable to deliver the necessary performance and security needed to fully realize the benefits of mobile connectivity, cloud-based computing, and IoT technology. In fact, it’s estimated that within the next two years, more than half of all WAN infrastructure will move away from traditional routers, having been replaced by Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN).

By leading the transition to SD-WAN, CIOs can provide specific business benefits for their organizations, including:

  • Significant cost reductions over traditional networks – up to 80% for some organizations
  • Speed and performance improvements running platforms such as Office 365
  • Up to 4x improvements in application performance and speed
  • Ease of offering guest wireless at numerous locations
  • Robust security for organizations that deal with multiple providers

SD-WAN provides the bandwidth and performance that allow for the continued growth of the IoT, mobile computing, and media-rich, business-critical applications such as Skype for Business. It enables organizations to deliver on-demand access, while retaining the ability to be flexible in response to evolving demands.

Cisco is one enterprise WAN solution provider that gives CIOs the tools they need to lead their organizations past the disruptions inherent in solving business problems. The true benefit of SD-WAN is that it drives business excellence by supporting connections between people, while also enabling lower costs, reduced deployment times, greater application resiliency, and improved security. In recent years there has also been increased emphasis on moving to the cloud, which brings additional advantages:

  • Resiliency through the elimination of a single point of failure
  • Agility – speed is no longer determined by the central component

At an organizational level, this trend is demonstrated by the growth of working remotely and the establishment of branch offices. Nearly half of Americans work remotely at least part of the time, and branch offices serve 80% of users while generating 90% of revenue.

People are the heart of any organization, and there is no downside to improving their ability to connect. SD-WAN is the technology that will provide the necessary bandwidth and security for these employees and businesses, and the CIO—the Technology Orchestrator—will use it to lead their organization towards digital and cloud transformation.

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