Looking into IT mirror pays off

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That may be the attitude some managers at Canadian companies take to information technology, but a report from Gartner Group says taking a more scientific approach to IT planning is crucial.

Gartner analysts Andy Roswell-Jones and John P. Roberts have penned How to Run an IT Strategy Self-Assessment Workshop, a guide designed to help CIOs and IT managers facilitate a process that will help them learn what they’re doing right with IT, what they’re doing wrong, and how to go forward.

Jones said waiting for IT strategies to play out, which can take years, isn’t viable since, if the strategy is wrong, waiting for it to play out is far too late.

“The challenge for the CIO and IT planners is to know whether they have a good IT strategy or not,” said Jones. “Since the business outcomes from most IT strategies take many, many years to play out, a faster way (to find out the strategy’s worth) is to walk through the strategy with its stakeholders.”

The process begins by bringing together an assessment group with IT’s principal stakeholders, including decision makers from across different areas of the business. Jones said it’s important to get the right people in the group. They should be familiar with the current IT strategy on the operational level. A stakeholder like the CEO, for example, would be too removed from the day to day.

“This could be the business/IT council or steering committee as a core group, plus additional senior business and IT managers,” said Jones, calling a group of 20 to 40 people the ideal size for a large enterprise. “The value of the workshop will be discounted if participants are not at the right level or do not include the necessary stakeholder functions.”

The process examines how the participants feel the company is performing in different areas of IT, which of those areas are more important, and asks them to brainstorm ideas for improvement. The goal is to emerge with a consensus for action going forward, to be refined and implemented by the core IT group.

“If the CIO and his IT planners know the strengths and weaknesses of their existing IT strategy, they are more likely to do a better job of the next IT strategy they write,” said Jones. “A critical part of creating an effective IT strategy is developing a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the current one.”

Jones said he sees a daylong workshop as a useful exercise for companies to conduct annually. If a plan is in place, it can take place every now and again to make sure the firm is still on course.

“IT strategies are still incredibly difficult things to produce and a tool as simple and as low-cost as this workshop can make a major contribution to improving IT strategies,” said Jones.

It’s the kind of process that James Moutsos, president of Markham, Ont.-based Dynamix Solutions, regularly goes through with his clients.

Companies outsource some or all of their IT services to his company, and many on the business side don’t pay much attention to IT until there’s a problem, Moustos said.

“If companies don’t take time to do the assessment they’re going to have some big surprises down the road, that in many cases will impact their business,” said Moustos.

He said many on the corporate side don’t consider the impact technology has on the business, such as what being unable to open a certain file or access e-mail could mean to the company’s operations. But he said it’s easy to get the business side on board with proper IT planning. Just calculate the cost of IT downtime to the corporate bottom line.

“As soon as they see that, all of a sudden it makes sense for them (to invest) in making sure downtime is minimized,” said Moustos. “It’s a very easy sell; it’s just making the business people aware.”

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