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Why speed is the new competitive advantage

In the fourth industrial revolution, speed is not only a business’ biggest differentiator, but also its biggest advantage.

The introduction of big data, artificial intelligence and “smart everything” is transforming homes, workplaces and daily lives – it’s known as the fourth industrial revolution. Underpinning this revolution, however, is a new master: speed.

Speed (or lack thereof) is the new catalyst for “traditional” companies to limp into economic irrelevance. These organisations can be purpose-built which makes them less susceptible to change, because their bureaucracy and processes are designed to reduce risk and prevent fast evolution.

This business architecture and its corresponding model don’t cut it anymore. In the fourth industrial revolution, momentum is not only a business’ biggest differentiator, but also its biggest advantage in an increasingly cut-throat marketplace. To satisfy consumers’ appetites for experience, businesses must be good at what they do and be able to do it quickly.

IT leads the charge

IT departments are key to creating agile operations. A well-planned tech stack will enable large jumps in quality, drive reliability and scale far better than traditional IT operating models.

However, the tech stack in isolation doesn’t actually bring the speed required. While IT departments are the foundation of rapid digital delivery, operating at speed is a team sport. IT must work efficiently with other departments, in particular finance and procurement.

When building or innovating quickly, finance and procurement have the greatest potential to block, expedite or evangelise any given IT initiative.

Avoiding setbacks is crucial. At best, delays can impact business areas such as time-to-market, risk and pivot overall capability. At worst, delays can impact the ongoing survival of the business.

Kill the silos

Business leaders must place speed at the core of company policy. Quality and teamwork will follow. Making speed a priority will reduce operational friction in areas of the business, bringing teams together to work on solutions that create a better balance for real business needs and not those of a single department.

Firstly, leaders need to provide teams with “freedom within borders”, which are effectively well-set guard rails. This is achieved by constructing decisions with delegated authorities and policies that result in as much automation as possible, through workflows. This removes the need to tap finance and procurement on the shoulder (unless certain pre-defined ‘borders’ are breached).

Secondly, companies need to create cross-functional teams with end-to-end responsibility. In short, replace teams working in silos with a “squad” approach. Staff each project with a diverse and multi-disciplined team from different areas of the business, including someone with the authority to rubber-stamp rapid changes as required.

Evaluate the process

When implementing new processes or ways of working, ongoing evaluation is crucial to success so improvements can be made. Any changes can be implemented through a “lighthouse project”: a small, low risk proof-of-concept project that can act as an example of the team’s success.

Start with a cross-functional squad featuring representatives from IT, procurement and finance. The success of the lighthouse project will demonstrate to decision-makers the potential of a collaborative approach and help evangelise contemporary views of these departments.

For organisations to wield speed as a competitive weapon, IT must stop being a victim of policy roadblocks and move towards being a source of innovation and differentiation. By giving multiple departments a seat at the table, business functions can work together to avoid being seen as a blocker or inadequate to the mission.

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