Whats the point of IT Strategy?
I’ve always struggled with the construction of a meaningful IT Strategy, not because I don’t understand the concept, but because nine times out of ten my employer or client doesn’t. Every time I’ve written an IT Strategy it’s been a ‘bottom up’ process, presenting a carefully prepared masterpiece like a toddler, only to get a pat on the head and see them stuck on the fridge with the rest of the project plans, acceptable use policies and service statements.
So why bother? What’s the point? Even that question is difficult to answer, as the purpose of an IT Strategy depends on what you think an IT Strategy is. To avoid this blog post being a very short and fruitless exercise let me start by taking a stab at what an IT Strategy actually is.
What is an IT Strategy?
An IT Strategy at it’s minimum must contain the following;
- Refer to the organisation’s high level aims, whether they be it’s mission, core values, strategy or five year plan.
- Define high level aims for IT Services and Systems which directly support the organisation’s high level aims (see 1), and relate each aim directly to the organisation aim it’s intended to support.
- Break down the high level aims down into measurable goals or objectives which you can identify as completed
- A summary of current state of the organisation’s IT, focusing on where change needs to occur to meet the high level aims and objectives (2 and 3)
- Define a governance structure which will be responsible for delivering against the aims and objective and reviewing the strategy.
Miss any of these out and you won’t necessarily fail, but you significantly reduce your chances of delivering. The idea is that the strategy is self defining and self sustaining, with review processes built in to define when objectives are completed and when new objectives are defined.
So, now we’ve defined a generic IT Strategy, what benefits does such a document bring?
The benefits of an IT Strategy
- It ensures your aims are in line with your organisation’s aims, which delivers a number of benefits including buy-in from senior management, quicker approval of project plans and major purchases
- It gives you something to deliver against, without which it’s difficult to get credit or recognition for the hard work the IT department does (IT is now ubiquitous, it’s a commodity like electricity, and it should ‘just work’).
- It’s a valuable planning aid which allows you to direct human resource and finances to the right areas
- It forces your organisation to think strategically about IT
All of these benefits are real, and if you can get your institution to own this strategy (so it’s not the IT Departments Strategy, but the Institution’s IT Strategy which it is responsible for) then this helps prevent a lot of the problems some IT Managers and Directors struggle with (disengagement, distrust, a feeling that it would be a lot easier to just outsource the whole thing).
Are those benefits enough?
Having defined the benefits, unfortunately for many institutions the question might still remain unanswered, or the answer is “there is no point”. I know from past experience that it is possible deliver excellent IT Services without an IT Strategy ever being committed to paper. This is the way many very good IT departments operate, and it’s not impossible nor without it’s merit. In this scenario, where no official strategy has been defined (for the business or for IT) the IT Manager has to ‘read’ his organisation, understand it’s needs, and then deliver the appropriate services.
The advantages of operating without an IT Strategy
It’s a more natural approach than trying to express complex and ever changing concepts to paper, effectively the strategy doesn’t exist on paper, it exists in the minds of the business senior management team, including the IT Manager. Because it’s not fixed, it’s easier to react to changes in requirements, finances or personnel.
The disadvantages of operating without an IT Strategy
The downsides are that it’s difficult to demonstrate success against objectives, and this approach relies heavily upon the IT team correctly interpreting their organisations needs and acting accordingly. Defining some basic KPI’s (call wait times, time to respond, time to fix) will allow you to show improvements in service, and getting buy-in from the key people in the organisation to project plans should ensure you remain in harmony with your organisation rather than drifting apart (and suffering the consequences).
Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’
Trying to force an IT Strategy upon an organisation which isn’t capable of coming up with one is counter-productive, leading to wasted time and effort producing a document which is redundant as soon as it’s finished. You have to work within the decision making processes your organisation follows, whether they are highly structured and formalised, or informal and harder to pin down.
In an organisation which expects IT Strategies, where the demand and support for such a document comes from above, and where other departments are doing the same thing (and understand what you’re trying to achieve) it’s a critical business tool, and one you shouldn’t be without.
So if you’re reading this and thinking “I don’t have an IT Strategy, should I have one?”, ask your boss, or your senior management team. They’ll either look blankly at you (at which point, carry on as you are, but work hard at understanding your organisation’s needs), or say “Don’t you have one?!”, at which point, use the excuse that you’ve never been asked for one, but had started work on a document and were looking for senior management input (which should get you out of hot water).