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.

It is often difficult to know where to start with writing an IT strategy, especially if your is a large company with several sites and offices. A quick Google search will bring up hundreds of ways to develop and structure a plan, so here is another one! This one should be easy to follow, and reasonably easy to implement. At its simplest, a strategy answers three questions.
Where do we want to be?
Where are we starting from?
How do we get there?
However I'd like to stress from the start that a Strategy Plan is not something that you write up, get signed off then file away. It is a document that will be used to direct and shape your IT organisation over a period of time and as such it is a dynamic document, it will need to be changed as circumstances change. Also, you cannot develop an IT strategy in isolation, you need to know your company’s overall strategic plan so that you make sure the plans align.

Beginning your Strategy Project

The first essential is to get buyin from your management team, and also to find out what they are expecting fron an IT strategy. You might not deliver all their requirements, but you should be able to explain why your deliverables might not match their expectations.
The second essential is to put a planning team together. These people will usually be the experts in their own fields, but not necessarily experts in strategy planning. It is therefore essential to establish a team leader, and ensure that they have the clout and backing from management to keep the team on track. The team leader should not be a dictator type, they must be willing to listen to and draw out ideas from the team members. However the leader must be someone who can impose some structure and discipline on team meetings, otherwise they will just dissolve into a talking shop. Sometimes it is worth paying for an external team leader or consultant to cut through the politics.

How many years ahead should you plan for? I used to write 5-Year plans, but given the rate of change in the world today, I think that is too long now. I'd suggest a 3-year plan, with the provisio that changes will happen in even that timescale which could mean that your plan has to be revised.

So now you have your management buy-in, your strategy team, and a leader to guide the process through. Now all you need to do is follow these 9 steps.

  1. Ask yourselves, where are you now?
  2. State your vision, where do you want to get to
  3. Which especial areas do you need to focus on?
  4. Take this general vision and focus areas and distil them down to a number of specific objectives
  5. Produce a high-level design or execution plan of the projects that you will need to deliver those objectives
  6. Determine some Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that you will use to measure how well the individual projects are delivering to the plan
  7. Write this up as a Strategic Plan
  8. Present it to Management for approval
  9. Deliver

Easy? Well we will need to flesh these 9 items out a bit, but basically that is all there is to it.

Where Are We Now?

There is a tale that a tourist in Ireland stopped and asked a local; "Can you tell me how to get to Kilarney?" The local chap replied "To be sure, if I was going to Kilarney I would not be starting from here." The point is that you cannot plan a route from point A to point B without knowing where you are starting from, and it might not be practical or possible to get to your vision, if your starting point is too far away. So for example, if your main focus is to successfully merge two companies, we would need to list out what each company does, how they work, who the people are and how effective they are. This, of course, is not a simple task, especially if the companies are large. A SWOT analysis might help here.
Depending on exaclty what goal you are trying to deliver, you might also want to take a look at what other IT shops are doing, and how effective they are. You should also do a technology analysis, to find out what is out there, and what might be on the horizon. This lot sounds like a lot of work, but it is essential to build a good foundation for your plan.

Where do you want to be?

This section is often called the Vision Statement and it will very much depend on the brief that you were given by Management. Now you know where you are starting from, you can make a sensible decision on where you would like to go to. In my experience, IT strategies are often about cost reduction, or cost containment, doing more with less, or absorbing an increased worklod into existing resources. You may be introducing new technology, new ways of working, integrating two organisations after a takeover or merger, but at this stage, the Vision is high level, not specific. To give a simple example, our vision might be "We will merge company A with company B, taking the best practices from each, so we result in a stronger company when we are finished. " Nothing specific in there, that comes later.

Focus Areas

If you start looking around at different types of strategy, you will quickly see that there is no consensus on what all the different terms mean, and these next items are especially confusing. Different experts talks about Focus areas, Goals and Objectives and mean the same things, others mix up Objectives with KPIs. To avoid any confusion, I'm going to miss Goals altogether and define the other as:

Focus Areas form the basis of your strategic plan. They are critical to define your priorities and initiatives and to clarify what your plan will accomplish. Focus Areas are useful to, well, focus you and your team down specific routes, rather than wandering off in randon directions. Focus Areas expand a bit on the Vision, but again they are not too specific or time bound.
To use the company merger illustration, the Focus Areas might be:

(I'm assuming here that selection and consolidation of applications will be a business decision and driven by business strategies.)

Focus Areas should be both precise and concise as above and the expected outcome should be stated. You don't need too much detail here, that comes next with the Objectives.

Objectives

Objectives are used to tie the strategy down and detail exactly what it is you want to achieve and when. You should have one or more objectives for every focus area you listed. If you cannot come up with objectives for a focus area, then that focus is wrong and needs to be revised or removed. Objectives are action items with start and end dates. They should be quantifiable and measurable with no ambiguity about whether you achieve them or not. SMART is a tired old acronym, but it is good for writing objectives: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic/Relevant, and Time-bound.

For example, an objective for the second Focus Area above might be:

Define a metric that can identify which working practices are most effective - end July

Programme of work

A strategy is useless unless someone implements it. Without a Programme of Projects, a strategy will never be more then a few powerpoint slides and a word document, filed away and forgotten. To make things happen, you need a plan, and people who are responsible for implementing that plan. So, while you do not need or want to write out a detailed set of implementation projects, what you do need is a list of projects, each of which will implement one or more of your objectives, will have a responsible person, and a delivery date. If you have a project office, It could be a good idea to get them involved in, or at least aware of this plan.
Your programme plan should include approximate costs, and also people. Do you have enough (suitable) people to implement the plan. Do you need to hire temporary staff to fill in for any shortfall? This plan basically lists out who is going to do what, when, and how.

Key Performance Indicators

How will you know if your programme of work is running to schedule and implementing your objectives as expected? Define a set of KPIs that you can use to measure how well the programme of work is going, and whether or not it is meeting your strategy objectives. Just make sure that all your KPIs are specifically linked to your objectives. KPIs can be a mixture of financial and nonfinancial measures, but they must be quantifiable. A part of you KPI definition, state how often each KPI will be measured and reported, state how will you get the measurement data, and who will collect it.

Say your 'where are we now' investigation noted a weakness in resolving customer incidents and problems. A suitable KPI, linked to the 'Select best working practices' objective might be;

"85% of customer queries and incidents resolved within 24 hours. Target to be achieved within first year. Problem Management team to extract data from problem recording database and report progress weekly. "

Writing the Strategic Plan

You have done most of the work for this already, but now you need to pull it all together in a document.

Start with a clear, concise summary page that explains what this strategy is about, and what it is expected to deliver. This is sometimes called a management or executive summary, but I've heard managers take exception to this, as it implies that they are too thick to understand the detail! So just call it a summary. What you want to do is tickle the reader’s interest and so get them to read the rest of the plan.
Next, summarise the data you discovered in your 'where are we now' item. You will most likely have far too much data to incluide here, but it might be a good idea to add the detail as an appendix at the end, for those who wish to read it. Most people, of course, will just want to read the stuff about their own team. Make sure you explain how your IT strategy will dovetail into your company strategy.

Now list out all the detail that you defined above, your
Vision
Focus areas
Objectives
Programme plan
KPIs.

Add appedices as appropriate, for example, a SWOT analysis for each IT team, technology review and potential directions and experiences from other sites.
If you are looking for formal acceptance of your plan, then you will need a signoff page for senior management to show their approval.

Communicate your plan

Once you complete your plan, it is essential to get it out there so people can read it. Start with a presentation to management. This one is critical, as you will expect it to result in approval to implement your plan. Pick a good experienced presenter who can put the plan over in a confident manner. If you bought in the services of an expert, then they should fit the bill. However you need a representational sample of your team too, as you will certainly get questions, and you need the right people there to answer them.
You will probably need to make a few modifications to your plan before you get it approved, but hopefully you will get it finalised and signed off.

Now you need to present it to your various teams, so they can buy in to the ideas and make it work. It is inevitable that some people will be resistant to change, but by explaining the overall vision, and then how each person fits into fullfilling that vision, you will hopefully carry the majority with you.

Delivery

Now comes the hard part, you need to deliver the plan and make it all happen. This may well be your responsibility in a small organisation, while in a larger one you will pass this onto your programme office. However even if you are not directly involved in implementation, you need to keep an eye on progress and make sure that any deviation is necessary and agreed.

Good Luck!

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