Agile development can unlock the power of generative AI - here's how

Rapid development techniques are a good fit for business explorations into the fast-moving world of artificial intelligence.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
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Agile development methodologies proved their strength during the coronavirus pandemic. Now they could provide the key to unlocking the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI).

When COVID-19 sent societies into lockdown, CIOs and their teams were charged with creating new collaboration platforms and business models in days and weeks rather than months and years.

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A myriad of CIOs told ZDNET during the pandemic that Agile development methodologies -- where teams continually revisit, inspect and adapt their techniques to deliver applications flexibly and quickly -- provided the pathway to scalable technology solutions.

IT teams learned a great deal during the process. Technology professionals used Agile techniques to collaborate with business peers to deliver systems and services.

The businesses learned from that rapid development process, too. The IT department was traditionally seen as a cost center. During the pandemic, the IT department proved its worth and kept workers connected and productive in challenging circumstances.

Now a new challenge is on the horizon -- the rapid rise of generative AI is leading to new pressures on IT departments.

Senior executives across the business have heard the hyped-up benefits of tools like Open AI's ChatGPT and Microsoft's Copilot and want their organizations to take advantage of a data-enabled boon in productivity.

Just like they scaled up technology during the pandemic, the business now wants to steal a competitive march on its rivals with the tactical deployment of generative AI services. And that's where Agile can help.

Also: Generative AI is the technology that IT feels most pressure to exploit

ZDNET contributor Vala Afshar explained recently how companies can use Agile to explore generative AI technologies by fostering a culture of experimentation that encourages all employees to explore and fail fast.

That sentiment resonates with Toby Alcock, CTO at Logicalis, who told ZDNET that Agile should prove a good fit for investigations into emerging technology.

"Agile is about the ability to respond quickly to a business outcome and deliver something, add to it, evolve it, and continue to deliver business outcomes fast," he said. "I think in that scenario, Agile development has great potential for delivering generative AI projects."

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Alcock explained to ZDNET recently how integrating AI effectively into the business is the number one priority for CIOs during 2024.

His firm's recent survey of 1,000 digital leaders globally suggests 89% want to incorporate AI into their organization in 2024, and 85% have budgets allocated for AI development.

However, other research suggests the pace of delivery isn't keeping up with the demand for AI. While some organizations explore how AI can boost productivity or customer services, few put emerging technology into production.

As many as 87% of data leaders say AI is only being used by a small minority of employees at their organization or not at all, according to Carruthers and Jackson's Data Maturity Index.

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The consultant's CEO Caroline Carruthers told ZDNet recently that most companies suffer from "AI-induced paralysis", where only 5% of businesses boast a high level of AI maturity, established AI departments, and clear AI processes.

She said the right approach for most organizations is to focus on a small problem where part of the business can use generative AI to make a big difference.

Businesses should use that project as a proving ground for the technology and build other use cases that adhere to best-practice guidelines around business outcomes, funding, governance, and security.

Agile techniques -- with their inherent focus on iterative processes and continuous improvement during sprints of work -- should be well-suited to experiments in generative AI.

Nigel Richardson, SVP & CIO Europe at PepsiCo, is one digital leader who is a big fan of Agile and can see how the methodology might be the best way to take advantage of AI.

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"I would say most of our delivery model now is Agile. I'm a huge believer in speeding up cycle times," he told ZDNET. "The big problem with the waterfall method is it takes a long time to find faults. With Agile, you can find out very quickly if what somebody thought they wanted is really what they want. So, I am a huge proponent of Agile."

Richardson said the key to using Agile successfully is to understand the problem before you jump in.

He estimated that about 80% of the development work undertaken by PepsiCo uses Agile development, and the other 20% uses waterfall.

From writing apps to dabbling in AI, Agile puts fun into the development process.

"I remember being involved in these huge waterfall projects that suck the life out of the teams because things move so slow," he said.

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"The beauty of Agile is you see the fruits of your work quicker. You get feedback. And that's true with innovation generally -- the faster you can speed up cycle times, the better."

Hakan Yaren, CIO at APL Logistics, said to ZDNET that another benefit of Agile is that it's well-suited to the modern digital environment.

Analyst Gartner suggested that 80% of technology products and services this year will be built by people who are not technology professionals.

Yaren said Agile -- with its focus on joined-up thinking and cross-business approaches -- is a good fit for the decentralized nature of modern IT.

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"With AI and cloud, the barriers to entry are becoming lower and people in the business are making IT decisions," he said. "Agile is the right methodology to deal with many of these processes because of the speed of change."

However, Yaren has a warning for IT professionals: The complexities you face could increase as more line-of-business employees test emerging technologies.

"Trying to connect these solutions, and making sure they're secure, reliable, and you can connect the dots across them, is becoming even more challenging," he said.

"Even though the business might go and purchase an HR system or legal system that has these capabilities, the issue of how you cope with that complexity is something the technology department still has to worry about."

Dan Eddie, director of customer service at UK health solutions provider Simplyhealth, said meaningful relationships between business and IT can help to ensure digital exploration in an Agile organization doesn't lead to system complexity.

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"It's a two-way street in terms of value. Within our organization, collaboration is the essence of how we work," he said to ZDNET.

"We're a product-led business, which means everything is focused on the customer. So, collaboration across product, sales, service, and technology to deliver an outcome through a sprint is the key to success."

Conversations during sprints can be challenging. People in IT and the rest of the business will have different opinions and priorities.

"Sometimes you win those debates through good data and influence, and sometimes you don't because your data isn't strong enough or something else offers a better outcome for a customer," Eddie said. "But the essence of effective collaboration is building strong relationships, which ultimately means you trust how you work." 

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