Learning Organisations in Turbulent Times

For a decade or more now the IT Industry has talked about agility as a benefit of advances in networked IT. It’s one of those awkward ideas that everyone can grasp reasonably easily but is quite hard to measure and evaluate. What is an investment in  £1m of agility worth in terms of value?

In the difficult economic times we live in when investment is hard to find, woolly concepts like agility are easy to ignore. Yet at the same time the level of uncertainty we face about the pace and direction of recovery puts a premium on notions such as agility. Catch 22 par excellence?

Concepts such as agility are not susceptible to a one size fits all mind set with simplistic metrics. A recent book by Gill Ringland, Oliver Sparrow and Patricia Lustig called  "Beyond Crisis" provides a useful practical set of tools for any organisation to analyse its context and think systematically about the capacity for renewal in turbulent times.

I was introduced to Scenario Planning by Gill Ringland at ICL nearly 20 years ago and through her to Oliver, a very thoughtful polymath. I have read their output with interest over the years. Patricia Lustig adds a background in organisation development and performance to  provide  a set of simple insights which have much wider application that IT but applied well would enable IT professionals to articulate more clearly the value they create rather than just the costs they incur.

My central concern is with project initiation. Too often business provides vague specifications which IT interprets ending up with both sides expressing dissatisfaction at the outcomes. 20 years ago i was a part of a debate as to whether IT was an enabler or a barrier to an organisation becoming a "learning organisation". I found that I could argue both sides with equal passion and conviction. I think I still could...

The increased pace of change, globalisation, interdependence and technology advances are a potent mix.

What I have struggled to find is a way of describing the forces for change in a way that can be developed through processes that can deliver specifications at an implementable level without losing the nuances on the way.

What the book describes is the idea of a Purposeful Self-Renewing Organisation, a PS-RO. In short hand a PS-RO is a learning organisation fit for purpose in turbulent times.

While reading the book Ii followed the work though organisational design, qualities for renewal and a toolkit for renewal that are outlined briefly and clearly in the text. I had in mind specific projects I knew that had failed and succeeded over the last decade.

In each case, I found insights that prior knowledge of the project had not, but also a set of common themes that brought out more clearly what had worked and why. For me that is a benchmark for utility of any framework.

I can't remember when I was first told that "there is no such thing as an IT project, only a business change project enabled by IT". Yet when things go wrong it's always an IT failure.

What struck me in my reflections was how often the vision with hindsight was worthy of a better implementation. What became clear looking at the causes of failure was a consistently narrow interpretation of innovation in the implementation process. Once innovation=IT becomes the dominant view of a project, the project will end up disappointing it's sponsors and stakeholders.

So my challenge is for us as a discipline to look at how the insights of this book and its frameworks could help us justify value and articulate the role that IT can play in building organisations which can adapt and thrive in turbulent times.

If like me you believe that IT can be a driver of economic renewal, then Gill, Oliver and Patricia have given me hope that there is a reasoned way forward to better times.

Beyond Renewal: G Ringland, O Sparrow and P Lustig, Wiley, 2010.

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp

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