Towards an Effective IT Strategy

By Sourabh Hajela

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By definition, every organization has an IT strategy. Some have it clearly articulated and the others are working with one without knowing it.

The question is: Is the IT strategy producing results?

You can also ask the same question a different way: What must you do to make IT strategy produce results? Or, perhaps, what is wrong with this IT strategy?

The strength of an IT strategy does not come from it being articulated, per se, but, rather, lies along its entire lifecycle -- from the "vision" to the underlying policies, framework, process design, including management and control mechanisms, through to execution.

Even so, each of these items must be carefully thought through and designed.

Vision, principles and policies set the direction for the strategy. They are the first step to designing and defining a strategy but, more importantly, they reflect the stakeholders' beliefs. It is critical that the strategy evolve from these beliefs, otherwise execution will be half-hearted.

It is also absolutely essential to realize that stakeholders include both the designers and the executers of this strategy.

A framework provides a strategy with structure. It enables rapid, repeatable results by ensuring that we have a complete picture and make the key connections. Frameworks might not guarantee success, but they sure help sustain and repeat it.

Sometimes, they can also salvage a floundering effort by identifying the root cause of failure. Without a framework, success or failure are a black box. More often than not, success comes from tinkering with an initial failure. Frameworks are invaluable in this tinkering.

Sometimes we forget that IT strategy is a process not a point-in-time event. Like any other process, the IT strategy process must also be designed and have an "owner."

It must also be integrated with other processes such as budget, portfolio rationalization, enterprise architecture planning and systems implementation. It must also be managed using clearly defined metrics and mechanisms.

Execution makes all the difference between success and failure. An IT strategy might look good on paper, however, implementation is where the rubber meets the road. It's the first time we know, for sure, if things are working as planned.

As much as strategy drives execution, the reverse is also equally true. A good IT strategy is one that is built factoring in practical considerations or execution constraints. Also, on an ongoing basis, real data from execution must be used to fine tune strategy.For the sake of brevity, we cannot delve into all that issues affecting IT strategy, so let's look at some key reasons why IT strategies fail to, well, sizzle:

Alignment. IT strategy and alignment are such very nebulous terms that most people have difficulty defining them in a manner that is actionable.

It is fine to say that a strategy is going to align IT with business but it is another matter to prove this alignment. Most CIOs cannot say for sure if their IT is aligned with business.

Value. Another area of concern is whether an IT strategy will create verifiable and sustainable results. One of the reasons for business leaders' dissatisfaction with IT in general, and IT strategy in particular, is results are hard to verify.

We know that IT/business alignment creates shareholder value. However, if you cannot verify alignment itself, you cannot expect to be taken seriously, when you claim, that it has resulted in shareholder value creation.

Change. An IT strategy is not an end in of itself. Organizations' need to keep it updated. For example, unanticipated events require a response that might not have been considered in the original strategy.

It is critical to understand how these decisions, in response to events, affect the IT strategy. The IT strategy framework must seamlessly traverse the business and IT boundaries to quickly assess the impact of an event across the entire organization. It should allow for quick decision making in response to these events by assessing the impact on of each decision on shareholder value.

Baby steps. Often is a multi step process, especially in uncharted territory. IT strategy success is no different. Your first foray might result in some problems.

You should be able to know when you have faltered, if it is a glitch or a blunder, and quickly assess the reason for the stumble. You must also be able to quickly devise a response.

Learn. The classic definition of insanity is repeating the same steps expecting different results.

Why do IT organizations behave insanely? Because most organizations do not spend the time to analyze, document, incorporate, disseminate or teach lessons learned.

Best practices are not disseminated from one part of the organization to the other. Failures are hidden. New team members are not taught what works and what doesn't. Processes are not modified to incorporate lessons learned.

If this is your company, your next IT strategy is bound to deliver the same results and this one -- nothing less, nothing more.

Steer the committee. Often, IT strategy is delegated to a steering committee comprised of participants from different functions. Each participant brings excellent, relevant and complementary skills to the table. However, this is a great idea that often fails during execution.

A successful team must have clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Each member of the team must understand how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together. Each member must deliver something. Together, then, the team delivers results.

Steering committees result in the right people showing up for all the right meetings. However, they do not focus on role definition. They also fail to assign responsibility for deliverables.

More often than not, these committees turn into debating societies where a lot of good stuff is discussed but very little, if anything, of value is ever delivered.

Rolling heads. Accountability is critical to the success of an IT strategy. You can create a very good IT strategy that either stays on the shelf or fails miserably when executed.

Until success or failure is linked to executive compensation and/or career advancement, such failures will continue to occur.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. However, addressing these issues can take you many steps closer to the solution.

Sourabh Hajela is a management consultant and trainer with over 17 years of experience creating shareholder value for his Fortune 50 clients. His consulting practice is focused on IT strategy, alignment and ROI. For more information, please visit www.StartSmart.com. Or feel free to contact Sourabh at Sourabh.Hajela@StartSmartS.com or post your questions atwww.StartSmart.com/forums/index.asp.