Those who learn how to apply the power and flexibility of digital platforms in business and government will be best situated to lead their organizations for whatever is coming next.

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Agile has permeated the software development and project management realms. After all, the practices of agile are rich with methods for ensuring that as user needs evolve or unexpected events occur, the development team can pivot quickly to understand and address new requirements. Operational agility has also picked up as organizations have adjusted production methods in response to fluctuating consumer preferences. Operational agility means “making the existing products better, faster, cheaper and so on for existing customers,” says management consultant Steve Denning in Forbes.

But what about creating new markets with new products to reach new customers? Accomplishing that requires a new IT mindset, applying the precepts of agile not just in software development or operations but to the larger organization. Those who adopt this mindset will be best positioned to lead in business or government, no matter what’s coming next.

The use of agile for strategic planning 

It only makes sense that the concept of agile would also percolate in a company’s strategic planning. At the executive level, strategic planning has traditionally tackled competitive positioning — how a company is organized and structured and what types of opportunities it’s going to address or exploit. Strategic agility, on the other hand, is what enabled Apple to make that giant leap to take on design, development and production of a phone when it had never done so before. Or for Amazon to realize that the technology underpinning its book-selling services could be used to sell other products — including use of the technology itself through Amazon Web Services. Those two companies are far from the only examples.

“Industry boundaries are disappearing rapidly in many settings,” says Virginia Tech Professor David Townsend. “You may have companies that you never expected to compete with directly that find unanticipated opportunities in your space.” Townsend teaches courses in entrepreneurship, including a course on strategic leadership in the university’s online Master of Information Technology. How a firm organizes itself — its business model — has become perhaps the most potent source of innovation, says Townsend. “It’s not just that your products that are innovative, not just your advertising strategy — it’s everything,” he says.

What’s also changed, Townsend adds, is where the top business leaders are coming from within the organization. “It used to be corporate finance or marketing were the primary routes to the C-suite,” he says. “Now what you’re finding is that it’s people with a strong understanding of technology.”

There’s a good reason for that. “It’s not just the CEO who has to think about competitive positioning and business model design. It’s the IT folks,” Townsend says. Those with technical understanding are situated to build the robust systems making up the “digital platform” that can drive an organization’s competitive advantages. As a result, this can open up whole new avenues for the business.

Amazon and the Chinese company Tencent Holdings, for instance, both compete in numerous markets, “enabled by a core set of technological capabilities [that could be applied] in so many different places,” Townsend notes. This upends the traditional business model in which you find your sweet spot — the thing you do extraordinarily well — and then take over that market space. Now, with the right digital platform, a company doesn’t need to focus on just one thing anymore, he says, because “it’s able to leverage that [platform] in so many different places.”

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.