The term IT Strategy is a commonly spoken of and the subject is often discussed in various seminars and talks. Being of so common a usage, it is assumed that all CIOs know about it and that it is practiced in most organizations.
In my interactions with CIOs in the last few years, I found that ‘strategic planning for IT’ is a practice which is a much less prevalent than what it should be. CIOs apparently have well-run programs in their companies; but on further enquiry, it transpires that many of them do not have their plans laid down on paper and nor do they have those shared with their managements.
If a plan is not clearly spelt out, it will remain unauthentic and not understood by others. In fact, people may even suspect whether such a plan exists. It is therefore important for any strategic plan to be laid down and articulated so that main stakeholders understand and are able to contribute to its fine tuning and its subsequent implementation.
IT plan Vs. IT strategy
Though IT strategy is a very familiar term it is still not understood clearly by many. Many tend to confuse it with the IT plan and hence claim to be on track. There is no disputing the fact that they have good IT plans and some may be running their programs efficiently, but they still do not carry the strategic element in it. In fact, many of the IT plans are really budgeting exercises for the year which list out the investments / expenses and the projects planned. CIOs therefore live from year to year and plan their activities based on user demand and technology additions / upgrades that they chalk out. They lack a discernible direction.
Let me define the subject in simple terms. IT strategy is an IT plan which has a definite direction and purpose. What differentiates an IT strategy from an IT plan is the purpose it serves. IT strategy is not a standalone plan but one which is in sync with the organization’s plans. Therefore the first step for the CIO is to understand the business the company is in, the market that it operates in, the competitors, business challenges, company’s inherent strengths, strategic direction, business priorities, and targets set. Once he gets that straight, he can make plans for IT to address these business issues with the same set of priorities. Obviously, IT strategy will require inputs from business and the final plan drawn up has to be vetted out by various wings of the organization.
Is there a methodology?
Yes, there are many. Management and IT consultants do help organizations and have developed their own sets of methods and practices. However, the CIO himself can adhere to simple principles of needs-discovery if he has the required capability. He has to hold discussions with the CEO, business heads, and other stakeholders besides visiting various company locations, the markets and even meeting business partners to understand the business imperatives and possible solutions. Once having compiled his findings, he could discuss it with technology-partners and seek solutions. He has to be receptive and be in a learning mode.
In case the CIO feels he does not have the requisite skills, he should muster courage to admit his inability to carry out the exercise himself. He should in such cases seek external assistance for help in making a comprehensive plan. It is better to have a good plan even though with external help rather than dishing out a poor plan claiming solo effort.
What holds him back?
Some CIOs fight shy of asking about strategy, feeling that they may get exposed for ignorance. They are sometimes at crossroads not knowing whether to seek consulting help (a lingering fear that they may get an adverse reaction of management) or do it in-house so that they could impress the management and claim saving money for the organization. Unfortunately, none of these tricks work in the long run, it is best to deal with these matters head-on and take hard decisions for the good of the organization.