Article (September-2017)


The Importance of agility in the workplace

Moitrayee Das

Designation : -   Ph.D student

Organization : -  Tata institute Of Social Sciences, Mumbai


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Increasingly, firms find themselves, either by design or circumstances, operating in business environments fraught with unprecedented, unparalleled, unrelenting, and largely unpredictable changes. Retaining competitive advantage is a continuous effort by all companies. Millions of words have been written purporting to identify the principles and practices most likely to support firms to gain the desired competitive advantage and thereby enjoy superior profit margins. Despite all the studies that have been done and are still going on, management undoubtedly remains a testing ground where theory, experience, judgment and, sometimes, luck play a role. According to Glenn (2009), approximately 90 per cent of senior executives who took a survey by The Economist's Magazine Intelligence Unit understand that their organizations have to be agile to thrive in the marketplace. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, to be agile is to have a "quick, resourceful and adaptable character" (Agile, 2016).

Organizational executives, employees and managers, need to be proactive, be aware of the changes happening in the environment and modify their behaviour accordingly due to uncertainty in the environment which further has an effect on the organization. Adaptive performance is considered a separate dimension from contextual and task performance although successfully performing adaptive behaviours is likely to add to both task and contextual performance (Pulakos et al., 2000). Pulakos (2000) defined adaptive performance as the "expertise with which an individual modify their behaviour when faced with the demands of a new task, event, situation, or environmental constraints". Adaptive performance is situated at three work role contexts and those three contexts are: individual level, team level and lastly at the organizational level and subsequently obtained empirically distinct measures of adaptability in each work context; however, each of their measures of adaptability is merged across behavioural dimensions (e.g., coping with changes, learning) and holds the essence of adaptive performance overall (Barnes and wagner, 2009). Therefore, till date, despite acknowledgment that there are different behaviours that may be categorized as a form of adaptive performance; there seems to be a dearth of empirical support for considering adaptive performance as multi - dimensional (Pulakos, Arad, Donovan & Plamondon, 2000).

Another framework for considering adaptation would be to understand the change drivers: employees are likely to participate in reactive changes to respond to the requirements of the task (e.g., handling a crisis, adjusting with different members in the organization) imposed upon them, and they are likely to engage in proactive actions to change the current environment and adjust their behaviours accordingly (e.g., implementing a new method, enhancing oneself). Although adaptive performance can be narrowly defined as a response to environmental change, several researchers have considered the proactive form of adaptation. Researchers have emphasized the active role employee's play in their work environments to facilitate effective adaptation. Researchers have also argued that an adaptive employee is likely to proactively modify their behaviour to achieve the required results upon recognizing an old behaviour is being ineffective, even in an unchanged work environment (Pulakos, Arad, Donovan & Plamondon, 2000). Similarly, it was noted that adaptive performance can occur in anticipation of changes, in addition to response to changes. In both reactive and proactive adaptation, workers need to modify their behaviours but they take on different foci: Changes that take place totally depend on the environment and are externally determined in reactive adaptation and self - initiated in proactive adaptation (Pulakos et al., 2000).

This recognition of the need and the necessity of adaptation at work have been considered in three separate streams of research. First, adaptive performance has been examined as part of one's job behaviour that pertains to meeting unexpected or changing demands of one's work environment. Second, research on adaptive transfer emphasizes the generalization of newly acquired knowledge and skills to unpredictable and dynamic task environments and predominantly utilizes the task - change paradigm in a laboratory setting. Finally, newcomer adaptation focuses on newcomers' experiences during organizational entry as they try to figure out unfamiliar work roles and create new interpersonal relationships (Pulakos, Arad, Donovan, & Plamondon, 2000).

While talking about agility, it is important not to overlook the two other related aspects of agility that is flexibility, adaptability and anticipation. Anticipation can be understood as balancing planning for expected change with preparing for unexpected change. Adaptability is the capability of the organization to self - learn and self - organize based on previous experience. The first step of becoming more flexible is to anticipate what might happen by planning for the known and preparing for the unknown. Environmental changes and uncertainty affect the organizations. Verganti defines planned flexibility as the capability to clearly identify all the critical areas early in a project and to plan for the key reaction measures that may be necessary later. The product development teams must be able to both anticipate and react a function, Verganti describes as structural flexibility. Structural flexibility is impossible unless planned flexibility is built during the early stages of the project (Pattern et al., 2005).

Business agility is rapidly becoming a management focus to be more competitive in a global economy. However critics argue that agility is really the lack of planning or just reacting in an ad hoc manner. Supporters argue agile managers plan for both the known and the unknown (Pattern et al., 2005). Agility requires employees to be trained so that they can sense changes and use flexible processes and practices based on whatever changes are occurring. Agile managers act and not just react to respond quickly and effectively to both anticipated and unanticipated business changes. Terryberry hypothesized that organizational agility is a function of its ability to learn and perform according to change environmental contingencies. Jaruzelski and Kumar (2004) define adaptability as the "capacity to anticipate, trigger, and absorb change whether cyclical or structural where flexibility is the capability to adapt the quantity and the quality of each factor as it either re-acts or pro-acts to environmental changes." (Pattern et al., 2005)

Multi skilled flexible people play a significant role in developing agile enterprises. For most of the twentieth century management has improved by developing new and better systems. Agile firms are less dependent on systems, more dependent on the intelligence and opportunism of people. Hence, it is very important that the human resources of the organization are in the best shape possible to be able to give their best to the organization they are working in. The relationships between sleep and agility have been developed to a certain extent and it shows how inadequate sleep can have a negative effect on mental agility and therefore deter performance.

Becoming an agile organization is not easy. It is a journey, perhaps without an end. It relies upon the integration of the factors included in the 16 elements of the reference model. Companies increasingly need the ability to respond proactively, to changes within increasingly competitive, global markets. In the future for a firm's long - term success it will be much more important to be agile than it is at present (Oleson, 1998). That means not only the capability to react quickly and flexibly to changes in technology and markets but also to be the starting point of changes in technology and markets. These requirements can only be achieved by implementing innovative organizational structures (Gunneson, 1997).