Premier 100: Veteran CIO talks about agile enterprise

CIO at large Michael H. Hugos Monday admitted to IT execs at the Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders conference that the term "agile enterprise" has a certain faddish buzzword quality. Then he went on to explain why corporations and their IT departments ignore its concepts at their peril.

"We in IT have attention deficit disorder, and every few months we come up with another TLA. That's a three-letter acronym," Hugos said.

But he went on to explain that notions of agility will be to the Information Age economy what the assembly line was to the Industrial Age: the thing that so enhances productivity that companies that don't adopt it are doomed to perish.

The hallmark of the agile enterprise is a network organization, Hugos said. Unlike the traditional pyramid-shaped organization with multiple hierarchical layers, the agile enterprise has key managers in coordination roles sitting between multiple business units. The enterprise coordinator says "what" and the business units say "how," he said.

Hugos said centrally controlled hierarchies just move too slowly. To managers in the audience, he suggested, "Micromanagement is a bad habit, one to get out of."

Hugos said there are four main principles to follow in becoming an agile enterprise:

- Quickly build systems that are good enough, not perfect. The cost - in terms of time - of going beyond the 80 percent solution is just too high.

- Let computers do routine tasks.

- Empower people to handle exceptions.

- Continuously enhance systems based on experience.

Building systems that are "just good enough" goes against the grain of many IT professionals, Hugos acknowledged. "We have a problem: We tend to obsess over everything," he said.

Still, Hugos was far from antitechnology in his remarks. In particular, he touted the usefulness of business process management, business activity monitoring and simulation tools.

Hugos was recently the CIO of Network Services, an US$8.2 billion distribution cooperative providing products and supply chain services related to food-service disposables, janitorial supplies and printing paper. He is the author of two books, Essentials of Supply Chain Management and Building the Real-Time Enterprise: An Executive Briefing. He is also a Computerworld columnist.

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