Developing an IT strategy

What is a strategy? Lots of different definitons exist, most of them identify a strategy as a plan to achieve goals or to bring about a desired future. Others talk of the 'art of planning and marshalling resources' and yet other combine these, talking of 'Setting goals, determining what actions are needed to achieve these goals and then organising resources to perform the actions'.
I like Max McKeown's definition, 'Strategy is about shaping the future' (I also like another quote of his, 'change is inevitable but progress is not')
For me, a strategy is about setting or defining strategic goals and a strategic plan is about defining how to achieve those goals.

To give a very simple example, suppose I want to go on a journey next week. First, I need to decide where to go. Lets say I want to go to Canary Wharf in London. You might ask, why do you want to go to Canary Wharf? That is a very valid question, hold that thought for later. So now I have a goal, and a reason for chosing that goal. Now I have a strategy.
The next part is to decide how to get there, and obviously, that decision will depend on where you start from. I'm starting from Edinburgh. I've a number of choices now, I could drive, take the train or fly down. If I decide to drive, I can go down the A1 road, which is poor in places for the first 100 miles, or I could go via Glasgow and take motorways for the whole journey. Once I decide how to travel and what route to take, I have my strategic plan.

The problem is that when you are faced with a choice of strategic goals, often you need to define both the goals and outline strategic plans before you can decide among them. Another example would be the Western Allies in 1943 as the battle for Tunisia was drawing to a close. They needed to decide what to do next and had an array of possibilities to chose from; Greece, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Southern France, Nothern France and even the far North of Norway. An outline plan was mapped out for each of those goals before a decision was made. So basically, you need both strategic goals and outline plans for how to achieve those goals.

One last issue, writing an IT strategy can be an issue as several people will need to be involved and consulted. If you bring together all your technical architects, then the problem is that there are lots of different ways to build and document a strategy and everyone will explore the internet and bring along their favourite way. The means that the start of each meeting is usually interrupted by 'Before We Start', then the speaker will discuss the latest article of book that they have read, and want to revisit all the decisions that were made previously. It is essential that all meetings have agendas, and those agendas are followed as otherwise the process will become an endless talking shop. It's also essential that someone has the authority to control and guide the process. There's no problem with spending the first session or two discussing the approach, but once that is decided, any new ideas should be discarded until the next strategy round.

There is a general feeling that strategy documents should be short and snappy, the idea being that short documents are more likely to be read. The idea is that you get your entire strategy down onto one A4 sheet of paper, divided into 4 sections.

The Strategy Paper

I'd suggest you split your A4 sheet into 4 quarters as follows

THE GOAL

Start with a brief overview of your Business strategy goals. If you business does not have specific, documented goals you might have to reach out to senior managers to find them.
Next, you need a paragraph that describes your present IT capabilities and how you are positioned to support those goals.
Finally, document the strategic goals that your IT department needs to fully meet your business goals.

This sounds so simple but of course it is never so easy. You need to consider new technology and how it can be used to provide a changing, better or cheaper service. Maybe you can see something new coming along that might even change your company strategy. Maybe you need a new way of working to deliver projects faster or a streamlined service to contain costs.

RESOURCES

What resource do you need to be able to implement your strategy? This could be infrastructure, including buildings, plant and IT hardware. How will you liaise with your buildings control people? How will you select suppliers for hardware and software?
You will need to consider people resource, maybe both internal and external consultancy. How many people do you need to implement? Do you have the skills in-house? Do you want to use your own people for the implementation so they get the experience and so do you need temporary back-fill resource? Can you use existing external suppliers that you already have a relationship with, or do you need to look elsewhere? What about leadership - would you need to second a dedicated senior manager to drive the change through? Do you need to recruit new, experience staff? Will your strategy involve a reduction in head count and how would you manage this?

How much is this all going to cost and how will it be paid for, by an increase in revenue or by a decrease in costs? Revenue increase should be covered by growth in your overall Business plan so in this case you are merely supporting that plan. Cost reduction could be saving on maintenance charges, floor space requirements or people costs.

RISK

This section can be broken into 3 parts;

  1. Strengths, what are you really good at delivering and how will this assist in delivering your strategy
  2. Weaknesses, what are you not so good and and what can you do about it
  3. Risk analysis, what can go wrong and how can the risks be mitigated

To get this onto a single page you would need to consider major risks, which will need to be high level and concise, with the promise of a more detailed analysis once wthe strategy is broken down to specific progammes of work.

The PLAN

What high level actions will be needed to implement the strategy, who will be responsible for each action, how long will it take and how will success be measured.

Presenting and implementing your Strategy

The next step is usually to present a case to the Board or the IT Manager to secure approval and budget. In my experience, senior managers usually want to be given options and a recommended path, rather than a single solution. So you might want to present two or three strategies, with outcomes, costs and risks for each, but be sure to identify the one that you think is best.

Once you get approval, then you need to decide who needs to see the approved strategy and they will usually be team leaders and the people who will implement the strategy. It is vital at this stage that you have a signed off approval, as some of the recipients will want to question the path and put forward their own ideas. This is the point where the 'why are we doing this' explanation is needed. As always, you need to keep a balanced view as some suggestions for change may be good, or even critical for successful implementation. The strategy should not be set in stone, but any changes should be fully justified.

A major IT change will require resource from several teams, some of which could be Development, Project Office, Networks, Desktop, Server Services, DBA, Storage and external suppliers. One successful method that I've seen to drive though a strategy is to appoint a 'virtual team'. If you appoint a senior manager to drive the change through, then second dedicated people from the IT teams as required, and sit them all together in a dedicated office space. This will help with inter-team collaberation.