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What agility means for business

With the new digital tools that are now available, organisations of every size can trade ideas and collaborate more easily than ever before.

As information technology grows more sophisticated, businesses need to be able to react at a faster pace. To help us understand what this means for start-ups and larger businesses, we enlisted the help of innovation forecaster James WoudhUysen.

James is the former head of worldwide market intelligence at Philips Consumer Electronics. He has made a name for himself by recognising trends ahead of the rest of the crowd and developing ideas on how to react to turn those trends to the advantage of companies.

You can read his tips on how to move to a more agile business model below.

World stock markets are volatile. European economies look more than a little changeable. The conditions in which people do business today mean that it’s never been more important to sense new developments and respond to them fast.

That’s why business agility has become a buzzword.

What does it mean, though? Well: like gymnasts, businesses need a long, sinuous reach to handle clients, both at home and abroad. To have the alertness that characterises agile athletes, businesses need to focus on the important things, rather than spending time sorting out administrative hassles. And to anticipate the moves that are likely to be made by rivals, as a sports team does, businesses need to be able to mobilise ideas throughout their staff, wherever they are.

There is hope, however. The means to boost efficiency and spread knowledge fast, through new digital tools, have improved dramatically in the past few years.

The new tools have begun to embrace more exotic apps around the Internet of Things and Big Data. Here, sensors track conditions across varied sources, and apps connected to those sensors mesh the information they provide through telecoms networks, offering businesses the chance to gain exciting new insights and act upon these in ways that can really be transformative. Simple examples are the mid-range and high-end satnavs offered by firms such as TomTom or Garmin: these collect up locational information from hundreds of sources so as to direct your sales reps on to the roads that are least blocked by traffic. That’s agility.

In energy and utilities, too, the new digital tools can make for suppleness and foresight. They can register when pipe sections are likely to turn defective, and can get replacements delivered before it’s too late – an emerging discipline that’s called ‘predictive maintenance’.

By using the new digital tools to take advantage of the speed and scale of the Internet, firms can speedily build a whole culture of innovation. In particular, they can gain ideas from customers so as to co-create novel products and services with them, coming up with designs that can win them appreciative fans and a big word-of-mouth reputation. What Nike and Lego have done ­­­in getting much of their trainers and toys designed by consumers is now within the reach of every kind of company. That’s why my old employer, Philips, has just opened a whole co-creation centre for healthcare at its headquarters in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. It will use cloud technology to collect, analyse and share health data from patients and clinical experts, so tailoring medicine more closely to patient needs.

It’s perhaps mid-sized businesses – those defined by EU statisticians as having 50-250 employees, and a turnover of €10-50m – that stand to gain most from this kind of agility. For it’s these kind of businesses that are very often in the dynamic category of what the Confederation of British Industry calls scale-ups: that is, they’re expanding their workforce or turnover 20 per cent or more a year. Scale-ups inspire, would make a real difference to the British economy, but face growing pains – not least, in their use of IT. They continuously need to absorb new employees, keep older ones on-side as waters turn choppy, take sales, distribution and new facilities even more firmly abroad, and constantly reinvent themselves. They need to retain the quick-footedness they had when they were just a start-up, but at the same time keep developing the talent to learn and innovate.

How can they ever find the time to do all these things? The answer is to start into the next decade’s IT now. As with any innovation in business, the more you delay at the difficult, ‘fuzzy’ front end of it, the more costly readjustments you’ll have to make later. Adopting the new digital tools is no different; yet if you’re quick to adopt, the relatively undeveloped state of experience among your rivals will likely give you a real lead over them. The definition stage of your company’s use of the new tools – when you assemble the group of software assistants that most suits it – isn’t just a headache. It can also present an opportunity.

In the future we’re likely to see many more kinds of cloud-based business apps make UK business agile. 3D printing is already headed that way, and 3D printing from the Augmented Reality (AR) holographic protoypes will shortly be on its heels. Also: from the physics department at the University of Warwick early next year, Dr Jack Cohen hopes to launch a £300 AR gaming system in which you can play with objects, perceive depth and see round yourself for a full 360 degrees.

In gaming you have to be agile, and think on your feet. If Cohen is successful, his system will one day find applications in business, courtesy cloud technology.

Virtual ballet with your customers, anyone?


From faster business broadband to quick and easy conference calling, at O2 Business we’re ready to make your business more agile, in the office and on the move.

Call 0800 0280 202 or email our new business team on to find out how.


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