The purpose of an IT strategic plan is to define the direction of IT activities over the next three to five years, and to give upper management and IT itself a sense of purpose and direction. Unfortunately, many times this plan never leaves the desk of the CIO.
In practice, although upper management is briefed on the plan, it typically doesn't retain or remember it. Worse, the general IT staff may not even be aware of it. If the strategic plan were visible and more tangibly linked to IT work, could it make a difference in the IT staff's daily sense of mission?
“Many companies have a ‘strategic plan’ that looks like it should have good strategy in it -- but it does not,” said Robert W. Bradford, President and CEO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning. “You may have a SWOT [strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats] analysis, you may have looked at your competency, and you may have your mission, vision and values identified, but if you don’t have real strategic thinking, you are just using up time and paper on your plan. And that’s the thing I see missing in many strategic plans -- reality.”
I’ve faced this dilemma myself as a CIO. You meet with other senior business leaders and determine what is important for the company over the next year and beyond. You go back to your leadership in IT and perform SWOT analyses and develop objectives that support the company's direction. You communicate with staff during budget season and before the onset of the next fiscal year. Then the plan remains in your office as the exigencies of daily work take hold.
This is a difficult pattern to reverse. More than once, I’ve had to ask myself, Is the strategic plan working?
Set the Right Strategic Expectations
The first thing I learned to understand about strategic plans is that they are malleable.
These plans present a framework of what you want to accomplish over the next few years, but because business conditions constantly change, the plan should be changeable, too.
For instance, a company might have growth goals that depend upon IT developing and launching an online e-commerce site, but then an opportunity arises where the company can acquire another organization that already has an e-commerce business. This shifts the IT strategic goal from building an e-commerce site to tackling a corporate merger.
When unexpected events like this arise, the gut reaction is that the strategic plan is really meaningless, because it isn’t being followed. A better approach is to acknowledge that strategies often require revision, and then to calibrate the plan to the new business circumstances so you can re-communicate it to stakeholders and to staff.
Why? Because it's not enough to simply move from day-to-day operationally. Companies (and IT) must have a forward-looking vision, even if it requires updates from time to time.
Answer the ‘Why’ Questions in a Strategic Plan
When I first started thinking about the effectiveness of the IT strategic plan, I circulated among staff to get their thoughts. I found that a significant number of employees didn’t really understand how the work they were doing fit with the strategic plan or helped the business. Human beings do better work when they have a purpose and a sense of mission for what they are doing, and it is the job of the CIO and strategic plan to communicate this purpose.
How do you accomplish this?
By ensuring that every objective written into the plan explains why it is being done, as well as how, when, with what, and with whom.
As an example, an objective might be to migrate a legacy ERP system to the cloud.
“Why are we doing this?” “It's to reduce the IT labor spent on the internal system so staff can do other projects; to eliminate data center hardware, software, licensing, and power costs; and to save the company money. As a metric, there should also be an ROI [return on investment] formula that projects when the IT effort needed to make this transition will be repaid by the anticipated savings, and what the business can anticipate as lowered costs above and beyond that.”
Articulating this in clear language gives stakeholders and staff a clear idea of how the objective will benefit the company, and why it is being done.
Integrate the Strategic Plan with Daily Work
The strategic plan should be regularly revisited in staff, stakeholder, and board meetings so it can remain at the top of everyone’s minds.
Also, chart out metrics for key plan objectives so staff and stakeholders can see and appreciate progress.
As an example, my staff was once tasked with converting and moving software from one computing hardware platform to another. The reason (the why) we were doing the conversion was because our existing system was antiquated and could no longer support the rapidly growing company.
Converting code from one system to another is long and painstaking. So, if you are outside of IT, it feels like nothing is getting done that brings tangible value to the business.
What we did was continually emphasize to others why this conversion was needed. We also posted a weekly bar chart that illustrated the progress on the conversion so everyone could see.
These steps didn’t make the conversion project any more likeable, but they did make the project “real” with visibility that reminded stakeholders why we were doing it, and how far we had come.
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