Type III Agility

by Philip Boxer

In the previous blog on the three agilities, a list of benefits identified by a Gartner report on agility (“The Age of Agility”, 2002) was organised into three groups corresponding to three types of agility. Why? And what does this tell us about what is required to deliver type III agility?

Two underlying issues are being addressed here: firstly, whether or not there is more than one autonomous supplier involved with the user; and secondly whether or not the demand from the user has been anticipated by the supplier. This gives us the following 4 quadrants:


Thus the two approaches to satisfying anticipated user demands are ‘directed’, either by the single supplier, or by several suppliers who choose to come together under a single contractual arrangement. The ‘Type I+’ position is anomalous here, since if there is only one supplying organisation and it encounters an unanticipated demand that it can satisfy from its existing capabilities in time, then it will do so on a contingency/ad hoc basis using directed composition. If it cannot, then if it is to respond to the demand, it will have to collaborate with others in order to bring in the missing capabilities. This will face it with the challenges of the Type III quadrant, where a collaboration of suppliers who do have the requisite capabilities must agree how to organise themselves to meet an unanticipated demand in a way that is specific to the demand.
So what is required to deliver Type III agility? Mark Maier, in his paper on Architecting Principles for Systems of Systems, distinguishes between directed and collaborative systems of systems (SoS). In the diagram above, his directed SoS correspond to Types I and II, while his collaborative SoS correspond to Type III, virtual SoS being large-scale versions of collaborative SoS. (Maier’s examples are the world-wide web for collaborative SoS and national economies for virtual SoS, but see separating the supply-side from the demand-side).

Thus collaborative SoS involve separating a supply-side infrastructure (Maier’s examples of these are the internet itself or industry structures) from demand-side organisations that are free to organise supply-side services in whatever way they choose, hence distributed collaborations.  This is the separation that presents the supply-side infrastructure with asymmetric demand. Type III agility is therefore characterised by the need for distributed collaborative composition described by Richard in asymmetric design – collaborative relationships between suppliers, a joint appreciation of what is driving demand, and a capability for collaborative composition. What distinguishes distributed collaboration is therefore that the identity of the collaboration is emergent in response to the demand itself. This involves taking power to the edge.

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