Creating an IT Strategy: Why it Matters
It may seem inherently obvious that any enterprise should have an IT strategy. However, some companies still don't see IT as a key business function. It is a necessary evil, an overhead expense, an afterthought. I'd like to suggest that we need to change that thinking.
IT is a business enabler. It is the engine that drives the enterprise forward. The better the engine runs, the better the business advances. If you never stop to open the hood and look at the engine or give it a tune up, you run the risk of coming to a grinding halt.
Creating an IT strategy isn't all that complicated. You need to take the time to look at the business your enterprise does, figure out what your key plans are to get from where you are today to where you want to be in the future, and look for ways to leverage technology to help you get there better, faster, or more cost effectively. These levers – quality, speed, and cost – are all things with which IT can help. Making sure your IT strategy supports your business goals is essential. And be sure to communicate with your business stakeholders throughout the process – share the value that IT brings and why it matters to the success of the business.
When I owned my own small business, I made technology decisions based on what I thought would help me improve my business and how much money I had to spend. Money was always the primary limiting factor. I needed to be sure that whatever I spent on technology delivered real return to my company's bottom line. That principle has stuck with me all these years. If we spend X dollars on a solution, what is the return to the business? That there is a return needs to be clear; technology for its own sake isn't a great investment. How it helps the business run is the real measure.
When I worked in technology consulting, one of the first things we did as consultants was try to understand the client's business drivers. Taking the time to ask about what an organization was experiencing, how its current processes worked (or didn't), and getting it to share pain points helped determine a solution that aligned to business goals. If we succeeded in becoming a true partner with the client in its business success, we had a much stronger relationship.
In the world of enterprise IT, the strategy development process should be an annual exercise. When I first went through the process at my current company about seven years ago, I felt like we had done the strategy development in a vacuum, without input from business users. That changed over time, however, and now we have a mechanism in place to have the business units articulate their goals early in the process to our IT leadership and we in the IT organization are able look at how we can support those goals through the work we are planning for the next year as well as for subsequent years.
A good strategic plan (whether for IT or otherwise) looks at where you are at (current environment), what the business wants to accomplish (goals in support of mission), what resources are needed to get there (time, money, people, tools), and how it will be accomplished (plan and actions).
At the beginning of each year, my team gets together with business stakeholders from our services and we go through the above steps. At the end of what is typically a day-and-a-half session, we have completed a strategy refresh exercise for each of the services we support. Some require more work than others, but the ultimate goal is to be sure that we are on track with the goals we've set already, the plans that we have in place, and those for which we need to still put in work. We do a five-year technology roadmap, but our strategy is focused in the three-year zone due to how quickly technology is changing.
This exercise has had several benefits:
- It brings us together with our end users and includes them in our discussion and thinking process, creating a partnership that benefits both sides.
- We look at what we've accomplished and how we can build on those accomplishments using available resources.
- We address things holistically, looking for synergies and best practices we can employ across our services.
- It helps to ensure a shared understanding of what we are focused on and how that will help run the business better.
At the end of these sessions, everyone gets the refreshed strategy package, which becomes the basis for our organization's goals and objectives for the year. We track our performance to those goals for a measure of our effectiveness. It provides us with a clear way of articulating our value to the business, which is really what an effective IT strategy ought to do.
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