A recent and still ongoing discussion on LinkedIn caught my attention. Someone asked whether agile should be expanded to other areas of business functions. A person responding to the post can either answer "yes" (it works for all situations), "no" (it only works for software), or "it depends." As of July 23, 2012, no one has answered "no," the majority have said "yes," and a few have chosen "it depends." Rightly so, many people believe these agile principles have already been around for years in Kanban, Lean Manufacturing, Toyota Production System, and, I would add, Just in Time concepts.
I am going to take this discussion even further and say that agile concepts have been in place since the beginning of time and are not unique to anything we are doing today. Everything that has been done throughout history has been improved upon and made more agile, from medicine, to cooking, to travel and just about any process in between. So it is strange to me to see people act as if agile principles were somehow invented in February, 2001. That is not to discount what agile has done for the software industry; I am not trying to say that’s not significant.
Now to the original question: Should agile expand to other areas of business functions, such as marketing, human resources, public relations, finance, etc? I think the answer is, "yes," "no," or "it depends." So why three answers? I think the old saying "the pill that cures me can kill you" applies here. I am not saying that other areas of your business can’t benefit from agile concepts, but these concepts really should be applied on a case-by-case and situation-by-situation basis. First a caveat: I don't believe that agile means cutting corners or doing things half way. Although it sometimes gets applied that way, that is not what agile should be about.
In the finance and accounting departments of most companies, there are procedures, documentation, and checks and balances to ensure that nothing is done that could harm the financial standing of a company. I am not sure most companies would sacrifice stockholder value just to get the financials a few days earlier. The same can be said about human resources: Would they sacrifice a procedure that makes sure the necessary background, reference checks, and other checks are done just for the sake of getting an employee onboard? Now granted if that HR department took three weeks to check references, then yes, an agile approach could help dwindle that process down, but some things cannot be made more agile.
In conclusion, you can apply agile practices to areas of business other than software development, as has been done in the past, but you should be careful in applying the agile model to areas outside of development as it could be harmful to your organization.