Unfolding plans 36 – agile working can mean many things

How do you define agile working?  It is very much in the current parlance.  It is a modern word to describe the modern ways of working that have been around since the mid-nineties at least.  It is one of those words that everyone knows what it means yet descriptions vary widely and it is difficult to pin down.  Agile working can mean many things and at times is interchangeable with flexible working or mobile working and like all jargon its value diminishes with time.  The cynics amongst us may even take it to refer to whatever the boss asks.

Different working practices have been around for a long time and for most of human history the office or the factory has not been our default place of work.  BT describes agile working as the new paradigm, ‘a transformational tool that is the cornerstone of their property and people strategy providing gains on cost, productivity and sustainability which benefit business, employee and customer.’  The new paradigm may not be so new after all.

I find Paul Allsopp’s definition of agile working helpful.  It is described in his blog on The Agile Organisation and was aired at the CoreNet Global Conference in Brussels as long ago as September 2009:  Agile working is about bringing people, processes, connectivity and technology, time and place together to find the most appropriate and effective way of working to carry out a particular task. It is working within guidelines (of the task) but without boundaries (of how you achieve it).

The problem for me lies however not in the definition of what is or what is not an agile organisation as the polar opposites are quite easy to argue over.   With a quick trip to the dictionary you can decide if you are at one end or the other.  Agile is defined as quick, well coordinated in movement, lithe, active, lively, with an ability to think quickly, mentally acute or aware.  Is this where you work?

No organisation is wholly agile or rigid if that is the opposite state.  What is of greater interest, however, is where on the scale an organisation finds itself and its general direction of travel.  We had a stab at defining the flow from a rigid state to fully agile: rigid; semi agile; mostly agile; agile.  This assumed that the whole organisation was proceeding at the same pace.   In truth we have pockets within services that are highly agile and others that are not.  We also have individuals within agile services that are very traditional or rigid in their approach and vice versa.

It is not a linear issue and a lot depends upon the type of work that is undertaken.  Some office jobs require you to be working on-screen for the majority of our time with little interaction.  These can be done anywhere with connectivity and can give the illusion of agile working yet remain traditional.  Others have a traditional approach using pen and paper but because of the way they are performed are more akin to agile.  It is where the work requires high levels of interaction where agile can deliver the most benefits.  Bringing people together with the right tools and capabilities to share information and cooperate around ideas is where agile comes into its own.

Perhaps we shouldn’t get hung up on descriptions.  Better to agree the operational style and culture that maximises the output and outcomes of your organisation and work towards achieving those.

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