Since the pandemic began, it has become clear that agility is the one quality that sets businesses apart. The ability to quickly recognize change, react to it, and stabilize an organization accordingly has never been so sharply thrown into relief—and whilst many have shown themselves to be extremely agile, others are still wrestling with these challenges.
Of course, we shouldn’t judge all industries equally; no amount of agility could change the realities facing hospitality, for example. For many, though, a determination to continue plotting the same course, despite the changes not only in our circumstances but also in people’s expectations, has caused no end of difficulties.
So, what makes a business agile? One of the central factors is an ability to survey, synthesize, and respond to data. At Avado, we realized a few years ago that our data systems were too segregated, and that not enough people had access to them, as a result of siloed working. We decided to build a comprehensive ‘data warehouse’, with integrations from our key systems. With this, alongside our self-service business intelligence system, all parts of our business can now view and interrogate the data they need. This has proved an invaluable resource, allowing us to quickly see which way the wind was blowing early in the pandemic and helping us to change course where necessary. This system has also been indispensable across other departments of the business, for example helping our people team keep track of what’s been working and what hasn’t on issues such as staff turnover and employee engagement. It also opens doors to new technologies that improve processes and efficiencies across the business.
Is agility correlated with seniority?
Having the data and resources is just one part of the equation, though. Building a culture where everyone—not just the senior team—has the skills to question decisions based on the data in front of them is absolutely vital, as is ensuring they feel empowered to do so. This is where huge numbers of companies fail, not providing their staff with the necessary skills to interpret data or not encouraging a questioning culture, especially amongst more junior team members.
In many organizations, the belief still persists that agility, innovation, and vision are directly correlated with seniority; this simply isn’t the case. Some people are naturally more inclined towards ‘big picture’ thinking than others, and whilst experience and development can make this stronger, finding these people—whatever their level—is a huge asset when working towards agility. Even more importantly, people at different levels of a business are often exposed to different sets of pressures and priorities. These insights can help to make the business more aligned and responsive to all its different challenges, enabling greater agility across every department.
Focusing all agility preparations on one department or set of skills—for instance, IT— is a common mistake which limits a company’s ability to deal with the unexpected. At Avado, we recently conducted some research to find out what businesses felt were the most important qualities for agility and how agile their business is. One thing that was striking was the disconnect between business leaders and their teams – 7 out of 10 office workers believe they work in an agile way, whereas their managers rank the agility of their teams somewhat lower.
Everyone can be agile
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—and demonstrates the value of having a variety of people around to question your assumptions. Managers were more likely to feel that the ability to identify and resolve bottlenecks was the most important agile trait (23 percent), whilst their teams tended to pick the ability to think from the customers perspective (27 percent). The truth is that both are necessary—and by shutting out those voices that favor one or the other, businesses will reduce their agility.
However, the difference in perceived agility levels could be more problematic, and is indicative of the divide that exists between business levels. Tellingly, most of those surveyed said that programs to train towards agile practices were focused on managers, with teams not particularly involved. This top-down approach will never foster a truly agile culture, and will continue to leave businesses vulnerable both to the negative impacts of outside circumstances, and to their blind spots.
Agility is a skill like any other; it can be learned, but only with the right encouragement and environment. Upskilling on data can help to get businesses into a position where they have many eyes and ears to the ground. Teaching people how to think and use this data to create action, however, is even more vital.
At Avado, we didn’t just improve access to data to empower all our people to keep pushing for better and more evidence-based decisions; we also acted to make customer service more agile, by developing our own AI assistant, AVA. This sophisticated AI can of course answer simple learner questions, but it can also source information from our different systems to handle more complex queries, freeing up our student success team to deal with the most challenging and multi-layered demands. We’re also working towards using predictive analytics to improve learner experience still further, to pre-empt which students will need more or less help by predicting their outcomes based on data.
All these things were born from insights provided by different teams and parts of the business, and every one of them makes us more agile. Nobody knows what the next crisis will be, what kinds of businesses it will affect or how it will affect them. What we can do is be fully ready to observe how circumstances are really affecting our people and our business, and then be prepared to change course. Not every business has these practices or this kind of data culture in place, but this isn’t to say that they can’t be created. With the right training—for everyone in a business—a data-first, agile approach can be seeded throughout any organization.
Mike Fenna, CTO, Avado