How should IT strategy work?

It is interesting that in many IT organisations “Strategy” has a bad reputation. In one organisation that I worked with there was a comment made that anything that was strategic would be removed the next year, whereas a tactical solution would still be there in thirty years.

First of all, however, let me steal a definition of strategy from the Open University:

“Strategy is the pattern of activities followed by an organisation in pursuit of its long-term purposes.”

This is a slightly strange definition, but an important point to note is that it doesn’t mention change or planning. The planned change approach to IT strategy seeks to examine what is happening in the IT industry; decides which technologies will win and then tries to implement those in current projects. Thus, the strategy is seeking to modify projects to use what is perceived to be the best selection of technology trends.

I would assert that the reason this doesn’t really work is that this is both trying to guess the future, and it ignores the “in pursuit of its long-term purposes” part of strategy altogether. The IT strategy of an organisation should be closely aligned to achieving the strategy of the organisation as a whole. This, in turn, should be closely aligned to the organisation’s long-term goals and objectives. Anything less than this is playing with new technology, or worse following the IT suppliers’ strategy and serving their purposes.

The real difficulty occurs when a project is asked to deliver a “strategic solution” which doesn’t actually provide a benefit to it. The delivery projects usually represent the delivery of the overall business strategy. To impact them negatively is to impact business strategy for the benefit of delivering IT strategy.

This is not to say that the selection of technology from those that are emerging in the market isn’t important. The key difference is to choose those that are:

  • likely to exist in the long term;
  • are sufficiently mature to be useful; and
  • will improve the delivery of current or planned projects.

This is not, however, an easy thing to do. In particular there is a real challenge to make any strategic technology choices at all – since there will be a tendency in projects to select a diverse set of technologies.

If the improvement of current or planned projects is clearly maintained, however, then it should be possible to strongly engage the organisation’s non-IT people in the delivery of the IT strategy. This would solve the issue of the strategy being obsolete before it is implemented, and decrease resistance to implementing strategic solutions. The IT strategy group does, however, need a more subtle set of influences to be successful than simply stating: “Do it this way because it is strategic”. If they truly have a case for their strategic approach this should be possible. If they can’t make a positive impact overall for projects then they should question if their changes are truly strategic.

If you would like advice on matching IT strategy to your organisation then please feel free to contact me at dh@sarquol.com, or call on +44 7887 536083.

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