The world is changing rapidly, and it’s redefining IT practices.

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What’s the difference between strategic agility and agile, the project management methodology?

Strategic agility aims to make an organization nimble and fluid so it can respond properly to changes in its market. “Agile strategy involves the design of flexible organizational structures and processes to create adaptive strategic positions that can respond effectively to emerging opportunities and threats,” Virginia Tech’s David Townsend says.

Agile project management, on the other hand, is a sub-category of agile strategy. Townsend says the focus of this approach “is to engage customers and stakeholders, through an iterative design process, so they can co-create the value proposition of products and services.”

Where strategic agility does (and doesn’t) excel 

Strategic agility can play a role in many industries. For instance, with the right software infrastructure in place, health care organizations can provide in-home post-surgery care. Practitioners can use wearables to track patient progress and adjust treatment at a distance. Such an approach stretches the concept of the traditional hospital.

In education, strategic agility can help instructors do iterative planning for new, untested courses that involve a lot of stakeholders, including students and partners from industry. This can help expand beyond faculty influence in setting academic direction.

Of course, strategic agility doesn’t fit in every environment, Townsend observes, especially where predictability is an advantage. “If you’re trying to coordinate the actions of 200,000 employees, bureaucratic processes [provide] an air of predictability around that organization,” he says. Imagine that every time an employee entered a timesheet, the steps had changed. In that case, locked down processes provide a definite benefit.

But even within those environments, strategic agility can play a role in addressing complexity. Take a government agency — these are often viewed as slow-moving, all-powerful behemoths designed to accomplish a range of activities. The city’s planning department issues building permits; state departments of motor vehicles issue driver’s licenses; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration works to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts.

What if you could view these as providers of services that a variety of outside organizations can then link to and implement in a very robust way, Townsend says. Government becomes an ecosystem then. He speculates: “Let’s set up a strategy to allow a wide variety of nonprofits or other private entities to innovate around us by connecting to our ecosystem. We provide them with a stable platform, resources, connections — whatever it is.”

As an example, perhaps a government entity maintains the data, handles the financial transactions and provides oversight while the outside entities do the outreach and deliver the services. Does the term “bureaucracy” (with its negative connotations) really apply in such a scenario?

Those who are trained in strategic agility can use it “like stepping stones to move through very complex, uncertain environments,” says Townsend. Students of the practice have learned how to use constant feedback to guide continual iteration in intentional and direct ways to solve specific problems. They gain the ability to “address the ‘unknown unknowns’” — all the things they can’t know and can’t anticipate when they begin a new endeavor. Importantly, he adds, this ability doesn’t trickle down from the executive suite; any employee can learn it.

This topic is a major focus in one of the courses Townsend teaches in the Virginia Tech online Master of Information Technology program. Strategic Leadership in Technology-based Organizations is a core class that even uses an agile process to define its direction. “There are different opinions, different perspectives about how strategy should be taught, and everybody has a different world view,” he observes. That level of participation and influence among participants makes for an “extraordinarily high” level of engagement among students and allows them to gain insight about how to apply the lessons of strategic agility in their own organizations (which happen to represent a really interesting mix of work environments, he says).

The world is changing rapidly, and it’s redefining IT practices. It’s no longer enough to learn new technical skills to excel in a career, Townsend says.

“People also need to change how they think about business. The old way we used to make decisions is no longer fully relevant,” he says. “You need to upgrade your ability to navigate within a new digital environment. That requires a new way of thinking, a new set of skills to complement the technical skills. This is thinking about how to lead companies into the future.”

Virginia Tech’s 100% online Master of Information Technology program is jointly offered by the Pamplin College of Business and the College of Engineering. It has been ranked the No. 2 Best Online Graduate Computer Information Technology Program by U.S. News & World Report four consecutive years.