As an IT leader, you will undoubtedly be asked by your organisation to create an IT strategy at some point. A strategy is defined as a plan of action, designed to achieve a long-term aim. Different organisations call it different things, whether that be a strategy, blueprint, a departmental plan, roadmap or programme.
One of challenges I faced when developing my first IT strategy was where to start? I had moved up the ranks from hands on technical roles, through management and into a more strategic role. Although my previous roles had required me to execute the IT strategy, I had not been tasked with developing one.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate some generic steps for developing an IT strategy. This is based purely upon my own experiences but will hopefully give you some helpful tips and techniques that you can take back to your own roles.
Let’s get started
The pace of technology trends and change is constant and the skills required within the IT department will need to adapt at a similar rate. It is worth taking time to understand predicted technology trends, priorities and expectations as this will have an influence on business decisions. The IT strategy needs to have a base from which you can embrace this and use it to your advantage.
An IT strategy is not just a plan of what the IT department wants to do, it should be a plan that demonstrates how IT can help the business. Once you have a view of the technology landscape you can begin to look at what the business is trying to achieve. You will need to examine and identify areas where technology can be used in order to help the business realise its objectives. If other departments within the business have strategic plans, you’ll need to understand those also to see how you can support them. Quite often there will be overlapping objectives that can be achieved by leveraging technology.
Body of the strategy
The structure of how the IT strategy is written is somewhat irrelevant, as long as it is easy to understand and gives clarity to those reading or executing it. However, being quite a structured person I choose to break it down into a number of sections, which I shall cover for you here;
It is impossible to map out the IT strategy without evaluating it from all angles. SWOT analysis allows you to understand where you are, identify your challenges and create initiatives to improve. It provides you with the awareness of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the IT department. The best way to undertake this excise is to create a table split into four columns and list each impacting element side by side for comparison.
The first two columns, Strengths and Weaknesses should cover the internal factors, things like; sources of income, funding, investment, budget, locations, facilities, infrastructure, people, skills, resources, systems, software, processes etc.
The next two columns, Opportunities and Threats should cover the external factors, i.e. things outside of your control, like; funding, the technology trends you’ve identified, business objectives, other departmental objectives, environmental, suppliers, partners etc.
Once you have completed this exercise, you can begin to think about the strategic choices and recommendations to overcome the weaknesses and threats and take advantage of the opportunities.
In addition to the technology that is identified in the plan, you will need a number of key components to support and deliver the areas you have identified. This can be included in the SWOT analysis or as a separate exercise.
The strategic choices are the key step within the planning processes, it basically details the options to the organisation will need to pursue and allows development of the IT roadmap.
Whether the IT strategy succeeds or fails depends on the choices made here. In this section, you will need to evaluate the suitability, acceptability and feasibility of the options and present the direction in which you decide to take. This will be influenced by the detailed sections.
People and culture
An element quite often overlooked is the culture of the business and the resource you have available to you. An assessment needs to be carried out to evaluate the skills you require in order to deliver the strategic choices and then identify the gaps in your current team. Have you the sufficient and effective expertise and skillsets? If not, do you need to recruit (long or short term?) or can the current team be trained? Is there anything that needs addressing culturally for the strategy to succeed? Decisions may need to be made to influence and incorporate the attitudes and behaviours necessary to deliver the strategy.
It is important to select stakeholders and take them on the journey with you, not only to contribute to the strategy but to help embed within the organisation and make it a success.
On the flip side, it is important for the IT strategy to include opportunities from within individual departmental plans. Engaging with the right stakeholders at the right time will help you uncover these.
Process improvement and process efficiency should be at the heart of the strategy, how can technology improve or replace a manual process through automation. This isn’t to say that technology will replace people, simply free them up to enable them to add value to the organisation in new ways.
The governance section should be used to describe how accountability for the results of the strategy will be ensured. Some work should be undertaken to validate how the strategic decisions have been made and how the benefits have been weighted against any associated risks.
You need to highlight how you will measure the success of the IT strategy from the outset. All of the strategic choices should have key performance indicators focusing on the business benefits. The key here is to demonstrate business value and how the KPI’s from the IT strategy can be linked directly to the organisational strategy.
As important as the strategic choices, if not more so. Every IT strategy should include a communications strategy, whereby the organisation understands the IT strategy and the decisions made. This can be linked back to the stakeholders as these people are key to disseminating the message across the organisation. If people do not feel that they have been engaged, consulted and kept abreast then it is less likely they will be receptive to delivering or embracing the strategic choices.
Some of the strategic choices that are made in the IT strategy may carry a risk. This can will include many of the topics discussed in the strategy. For example, timescales around delivery, the communication plan, governance and metrics. The risk balancing decisions will vary between the strategic choices and each will need to be assessed against the impact on the business. In some circumstances, new technology or processes may be less well understood and in this case, risk-based scenarios can be used instead.
Technology moves extremely fast and it is important that the IT strategy highlights the triggers for revisions to the it. This again will differ depending on the business but changes in the market, loss or gain of key stakeholders, changes to the business strategy or financial models should all be considered. Alternatively, an annual refresh would be a minimal recommendation.
It is important to remember the IT strategy isn’t a technical document, it should focus on business outcomes and demonstrate how IT will support the business strategy in realising its key objectives. The key to achieving this is to develop a collaborative approach, whereby each stakeholder within the business participates in the planning process.
Finally, I would highly recommend finding yourself a mentor with experience in IT strategy. One thing I have learnt throughout this process is the importance of networking with my peers, fellow IT leaders that have done this kind of thing before. I joined several LinkedIn groups, specifically focusing on IT strategy and reached out for help. I was somewhat taken aback at the number of people willing to engage with me, whether that be over the phone, via email or signposting me in the direction of some useful research. I have documented some useful information in the appendix below.
- CIO Forum
- Chief Information Officer Network
- The IT Leaders forum
- Strategic planning foundations
- Creating your IT strategy
- Implementing World Class IT Strategy by Peter High
- Disrupt IT by Ian Cox