Agility - concepts and drivers

Agility, although an omnipresent buzzword and current management trend, is not a new concept or phenomenon. But it has become one of the most-discussed business concepts of our time. The many conceptualizations of agility make it difficult to grasp the essence of the concept. We propose a definition of agility in the infobox below:


Agile organizations require four capabilites to react to changing environments


  • Agility is the overall capability of an organization to respond to and take advantage of the changes initiated by the drivers in the internal and external environments.


  • It includes the ability to identify relevant changes and to respond proactively, efficiently and effectively, employing the right personnel based on competence, not hierarchical status.


  • Additionally, it includes the ability to implement flexible structures and processes suited to the immediate tasks at hand and to employ the appropriate resources in the shortest possible time.



Why do organizations have to become agile?

Map - Hintergrundbild

Technological Shifts: The digital transformation of work and life effects all parts of the value chain. Accelerated and altered development cycles for new products and technologies require organizations to become more flexible and faster.


Market Demands: Rapidly changing markets, increasing cost pressure, and intensified competition require corporations to adapt their market portfolios. Especially, the rising expectations of customers regarding customization, quality, and delivery times intensify the pressure to meet individual needs instead of mass production.


Societal Demands: Employees belonging to the generations Y and Z have different expectations for their career than previous generations. They want to take on responsibility for their own projects very soon and prefer to work in teams. Furthermore, unstable and complex political environments and stronger regulations put pressure on companies, e.g. in data protection.


Executive Board: The management board will only align the corporate strategy and the organizational set-up if it believes in the advantages of agile structures.


Size of organization: For smaller organizations, such as start-ups, it is easier to implement agile ways of working. However, large organizations that are traditionally very hierarchical would benefit the most from agile structures and processes.


Types of tasks: Not all types of tasks within an organization are suitable for agile working. Activities such as accounting, investor relations or handling legal issues work better with clear chains of command and responsibility.




Key facts

  • The increasing dynamics of corporate environments in the VUCA world have placed more emphasis on agility.
  • Technological shifts, new market demands, and political and societal changes are drivers of agility in organizations.
  • These factors require organizations to become more responsive to changes, to speed up their processes, adapt structures and employ resources more efficiently and effectively.
  • The extent to which a corporation can implement agile ways of working depends on the support of the top management, the size of the organization and the type of business.
  • Agility is likely to have a strong impact on communication departments. However, most of them as well as their leaders still struggle with how to cope with the challenges this presents.



  • A systematic literature review across various disciplines was conducted to gain a comprehensive understanding of the concept of agility and its key dimensions.
  • Several conceptual agility frameworks were analysed and relevant aspects for communication management were synthesised.
  • Thirty-eight in-depth interviews with chief communication officers and senior communication managers from multinational companies were conducted between January and March 2018. The companies came from diverse industries and together represent more than three million employees.
  • First case studies in selected departments were conducted between August and September 2018 to gain further insights into the practices of coping with agility in communication departments. Further case studies will follow.


Scientific background

  • The problem of how organizations can successfully deal with constantly changing environments – today described as “VUCA world” – has been a prevailing topic both in industry and academia for decades.
  • As early as the 1920s and especially in the 1960s, management researchers started to develop concepts about how organizations deal with increasingly volatile environments. The more specific concept of agility was proposed in the 1990s by researchers at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.
  • Originally, the concept of agility focused on agile manufacturing. It gained momentum when picked up by the software industry, where the concept is most commonly applied today.
  • Since a decade, agility has become one of the most-discussed business concepts of our time in order to become faster and more flexible.