Software Architecture for the Nimble Business

Software Architecture for the Nimble BusinessIn today's world of increasing globalization, innovative technologies, and growing transparency, businesses now must master a new ability in order to succeed: the ability to be nimble, or to adapt.

Business strategy approaches pursued by firms in past decades have become increasingly unviable as stability in business and the world at large has fallen by the wayside, resulting in a new world dominated by risk and instability, with the winners being those who are best able to adapt.

Traditionally, strategies by businesses sought to gain competitive advantages through positioning, scale, or first-order abilities to deliver particular offerings or resources. These types of strategies are too static for today. Rather, to succeed in this new age of business, firms must be dynamic and adaptable; that is, nimble.

What Does it Mean to be Nimble?

Much like the term "agile," nimble is often used today as a popular buzzword, but what does it really mean? Quite simply, nimble in the business sense refers to a firm that is able to identify indicators of change, understand them, and adapt accordingly to the coming changes in order to overcome challenges and even thrive in its environment.

The Characteristics of a Nimble Business

Companies that are nimble possess several key characteristics. A nimble business is able to:

  1. Read and understand signals indicating change and act on the information in a timely manner.
  2. Experiment with its products, services, business model, strategies, and so on both frequently and rapidly.
  3. Manage increasing complexity with its stakeholders as the world becomes more interconnected.
  4. Motivate its employees and stakeholders to pursue new strategies and support the aforementioned experimentation.

A business that is capable of the above four abilities is one that can be successfully termed nimble.

Why Be a Nimble Business?

For many firms, traditional success strategies of scale and resources have come to be seen as "tried-and-true" methods. However, in today's uncertain world, businesses should ask themselves the following questions:

  1. In a rapidly changing business environment, how can our planning cycles, yearly or multi-year, stay relevant?
  2. How can we quickly adjust to changes in market position if our strategies are based on scale or position?
  3. How do we apply forecasting and analysis for strategic planning in unpredictable environments?
  4. When we have changing information or signals, how can we understand and capitalize on the information?

When faced with such questions, the need for being able to foresee and react to change becomes clear.

How Does Software Architecture Relate to Being Nimble?

For nearly all businesses today, software represents the primary medium through which all business operations are conducted. Even for tasks such as strategic planning and the like, executives depend on information and statistics provided by their organizational software systems.

This close relationship between the organization itself and its software is why it is important to ensure not only that the software will not hold the business back in terms of adaptation to change, but even to support or guide the firm in the process.

What is Software Architecture?

This term refers to the fundamental structure of the software system itself. Beyond that, the architecture includes the method of creating the structure as well as its supporting documentation.

Simply put, "Your architecture is your business strategy translated into technology."

And as unique as your business strategy is, your architecture must be able to support it. That means if your strategy involves "being nimble and being able to adapt," your software must support that too.

When it comes to software architecture that supports the concept of being nimble, the goal for the software developers is to create an architecture that can both sense and respond to new, unpredictable challenges [1].

However, much like it can be a boon for businesses, architecture can also present a challenge. If faced with rigid or complex software systems, businesses can be held back from being able to adapt to changes or pursuing everyday business strategies.

In one survey conducted by the International Data Corporation (IDC) on North American companies ranging from 250 employees to 10,000 in size, 63% of respondents described their organization's code base to have increased either with "much more" or "more" complexity within a time period of two years [2]. Such complexity as found in the survey can make it more difficult for businesses to be nimble.

The same IDC survey also uncovered that, according to respondents, the time to implement software and the rapid pace of change were one of the top five challenges to application quality [2]. This means that for firms lacking software architecture that enables adaptation, they may find themselves behind in terms of application quality as well, leading to potential security risks and more.

Supporting this view, the IDC report went on to identify that security concerns and business agility were the top two most important drivers for the adoption of software quality tools [2].

Ultimately, the architecture that you choose will affect your organizational structure, goals, future system architectures, and even your company culture.

How is a Software Architecture That Supports Change Developed?

Earlier we described software architecture as business strategy simply translated into terms of technology. This means that building the right architecture for your business that supports being nimble is all about choice.

Ask the Right Questions

When developing your architecture, your firm must consider the following:

What Are Your Requirements?

To be nimble, you must first know what you expect out of your system. Identify and understand your needs first: your architecture will reflect this in order to enable you to change.

What is Your Business Environment?

The environmental context of your software is important. Based on your exact line of business, work together with your team to identify potential metrics in your environment you should monitor that can identify changing business conditions. 

What Changes Must Your Software Architecture Support in Your Identified Environment?

You can't anticipate all that the future may hold. However, you can identify from your requirements - and from the nature of your business environment - potential future directions you may have to explore one day. Your architecture must be able to support a variety of potential futures if you choose. The key is that they are not set in stone; rather, you instead keep your systems flexible enough to go with the flow.

These questions can help you identify exactly what your software architecture must look like for it to best help you achieve your individual business goals. It is important to keep in mind that what works for one organization will not always work for another. Ultimately, the ability of your architecture to support your business in terms of being nimble depends on your business itself, and the effort you put into identifying an architecture that is right for you.

Final Thoughts

Software architecture is personalized, much like custom software. In order for your business to be truly nimble, you can't afford to have a rigid or complex software system that fights change at every step of the way.  Modern architectures that allow businesses to be more nimble include leveraging the concepts of separation of concerns, micro services and modular components.  This will allow your business to replace or enhance just the critical parts or your enterprise systems, add completely new features incrementally and integrate with other internal or external systems easily. 

By ensuring flexibility and adaptability in the software systems that your business depends on, you can better position your firm for not only adapting, but also thriving from future potential changes.

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References

1. Sambamurthy, V., Bharadwaj, A., and Grover, V. "Shaping Agility through Digital Options: Reconceptualizing the Role of Information Technology in Contemporary Firms." MIS Quarterly 27, 2, pp. 237-263. 2003.

2. Ballou, M. "Improving Software Quality to Drive Business Agility. White Paper sponsored by: Coverity Inc." International Data Corporation (IDC). June 2008. Accessed on December 26, 2016 from http://www.coverity.com/library/pdf/IDC_Improving_Software_Quality_June_2008.pdf?

3. Stodder, D. "Achieving Greater Agility With Business Intelligence: Improving Speed and Flexibility for BI, Analytics, and
Data Warehousing." TDWI Best Practices Report. TDWI Research. 2013. Accessed on December 26, 2016 from https://www.informatica.com/content/dam/informatica-com/global/amer/us/collateral/white-paper/tdwi-achieving-greater-agility-with-business-intelligence_white-paper_2360.pdf

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