Building and maintaining strategic agility

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Centre for Technology Innovation and Engagement

Dr Josh Morton is a Lecturer in Strategic Management. His research interests focus on strategy and innovation, strategy in pluralistic contexts, legitimation, and the use of technology in strategy. This article is based on Josh’s co-authored publication ‘Building and Maintaining Strategic Agility: An Agenda and Framework for Executive IT leaders’ in California Management Review.

Office workers convened around a workstation.

What is the role of IT executives?

This research, published in California Management Review, examines strategic agility in organisations – how organisational strategy-makers (executives, senior managers and middle managers) adapt their strategic direction to act quickly and be flexible to changes in their environment.

In today’s chaotic world, one of the central determinants of a firm’s success is its ability to be agile in strategy-making. This is particularly true as the competitive landscape has been shifting in recent years. Employee mobility, increased rates of knowledge transfer, and technological advancements have all contributed to a turbulent environment and have accelerated change and disruption. Rapid and unpredictable change shows no sign of slowing, particularly as populism is gaining traction, and political institutions like the European Union are being challenged. We live in an uncertain world where a fast and flexible approach to strategy is paramount.

The need to understand the role of IT executives in strategy making

Research on strategic agility to date emphasises that organisations must continuously adapt their strategic direction when faced with uncertainty and changing circumstances. Existing research has done much to highlight the central capabilities (how organisations enable the formation and deployment of their strategy) which all organisations must both build and maintain over time to be strategically agile. The essential line of this research is that we must go beyond simply knowing what these strategic agility capabilities are, towards understanding the intricacies of how strategy-makers help their organisations achieve these.

We also know that IT executives, such as Chief Information Officers, Chief Technology Officers, and Senior IT managers, are increasingly central figures in strategy-making. This research specifically seeks to understand how IT executives help their organisations build and maintain strategic agility through their every-day routines as strategy-makers.

Research team and data collection

The research, conducted with Dr Patrick Stacey at Loughborough University and Matthias Mohn at Barzahlen GmbH, began as a consultancy project with a leading global consultancy firm. This developed into a more extensive research endeavour and involved organisations from the public and private sectors, and from several industries, including: communications and technology, consultancy, consumer goods, defence, entertainment, financial services, and hospitality.

Key findings

The main findings indicate four main themes through which the majority of IT executives help build and maintain strategic agility over time. Within these themes we identified a number of everyday practices that the strategy-makers often demonstrate:

  • Strengthen strategic influence. IT executives strive to develop and improve their business knowledge and advocate for the strategic use of IT. They report to the CEO and practice self-marketing.

  • Explore internal and external organisational domains. IT executives embrace being strategists and catalysts for change, and act entrepreneurial. They help adapt organisational culture through their encouragement of testing and trial and error with new technologies. In terms of the environment, they have awareness of their surroundings by monitoring technology and the business environment, and by recognising opportunities and challenges. They are central in leveraging data for new insights and taking a customer-centric focus when developing analytic capabilities.

  • Effectively communicate and collaborate. IT executives are ‘team players’ who enable ways of including others in strategic discussion and collaboration and use and apply appropriate business language when interacting with other departments, executives and external stakeholders. They are also influential in breaking up silos across organisations and help ensure others can relate to, and commit to, an organisation’s strategic direction.

  • Manage tensions within organisations. IT executives also help manage organisational tensions, from breaking down tensions with senior managers and the board through mutual communication, to helping manage tensions between departments by visioning and adopting a participative leadership style. They also participate in mentoring and coaching and justify their actions and commands clearly and meaningfully.

Providing a framework for IT executives

The research was conducted to offer strong practical implications, for both organisations and IT executives. The main contribution of the work is an agenda and framework for IT executives, which can be used to help guide them with the practices needed to contribute to their organisations and the challenge of building and maintaining strategic agility.

A more in-depth article on this research can be found in California Management Review.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.