Methodical souls that CIOs are, they love to have a plan. But what good is a plan if it’s not the right one? And unfortunately, much of the time when it comes to IT planning this seems to be the case, according to a number of experts we talked to. A common problem – too often the CIO’s idea of planning is working out in great detail how to spend years getting better at the same old things. What’s worse, some of those “same old things” were the wrong things in the first place.
Observes one of our pundits, Roger Burlton, president of The Process Renewal Consulting Group in Vancouver: “They only look at IT and they don’t look at the business nearly enough. And for the most part, they start with the wrong end in mind.”
The traditional approach to producing an IT strategic plan is to interview practically everyone in the organization and come up with a huge report outlining 5,000 or so things that need work, says Bob Rafuse, senior management consultant with IT consulting firm LGS Group Inc. in Montreal. “The value of the deliverable was proportionate to the weight of the document we delivered,” he notes, “which probably in retrospect wasn’t all that valuable.”
Not unless you needed a doorstop. And in fact, many of these strategic plans ended up as doorstops because despite all the interviewing and the detail packed into them, they failed to address the real question: where is the organization going, and how can IT help it get there?
“You really have to have an exchange with the business in terms of where the business is heading,” says Mary Chung, president of consulting firm Alacrity Inc. in Toronto. “Sometimes you can be very involved at the project level and not be able to connect to the larger picture.”
“There seems to be too much bottom-up planning going on,” observes Paul Carreiro, president of consulting firm Keane Canada Inc. in Toronto. But strides are being made in some quarters. Rather than thinking in terms of how to improve existing technology, he says, enlightened IT organizations are starting to realize that they need to think about how technology can support the business strategy and what future demands the business will make on IT.
By way of example, he cites a company that plans to grow by 25 per cent per year through acquisitions for the next three years. “You know you’ve got an acquisition and integration issue on your hands for the next three years,” he says. So the question becomes “What do you need to look like to be able to integrate six different companies in the next three years?”
Unfortunately, not all IT departments are asking that sort of question. Instead, they may be asking what is wrong with an existing order-entry application and when can it be fixed. The problem with that is that quite possibly the company doesn’t really need an order-entry application at all – it may need a marketing system. Or perhaps a financial services company doesn’t need changes to a host-based predictive modelling application. What it really needs is for sales reps to be able to do sophisticated analysis on laptop computers while meeting with customers.
DEVELOPING BUSINESS RELATIONSHIPS
“When you start off with the idea that this is the application,” warns Rafuse of LGS, “you start with ‘my mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.'”
Instead of making that mistake, he adds, IT people should be talking with users and management in the business units to determine their real needs. But it is imperative that the right questions be asked. Not the traditional “what do you do?”, with a view to automating the work identified. The time for that sort of thinking is past. Now IT needs to be asking “what do you want to do?”
The answer to that question can be revelatory for IT people.
Before the questions can be asked, answered or understood, though, IT and business people have to be communicating. Today, many organizations are grappling with how to make that happen.
The ideal solution lies in close relationships between the IT people and the business units. Home Hardware Inc. in St. Jacob’s, Ont., is fortunate to have such relationships.
“The IS group here has been reporting to the CEO separately since 1980. It’s just our way of doing business,” says Terry Davis, vice-president of information systems and dealer development. “We work closely with the owners of business processes here, and we believe we’re partners with them. The IS group contributes a lot in the process of making decisions about business processes and how they can be enabled or enhanced by IT. But we recognize that in the end it’s the functional business areas that are responsible for those processes.”
Home Hardware’s IS group is divided into three teams, focused on merchandising, finance and distribution. Leaders of the teams meet regularly with people from those departments and look at their needs, examine what sort of technologies are available that can help them, and see if any of those technologies are a fit for their needs.
Davis, a long-time Home Hardware employee whose responsibilities straddle the line between IS and the rest of the business, has the advantage of strong ties with other parts of the company. Not every CIO is in such a position. Often it depends on how highly the business rates IT’s importance.
One indicator as to how critical the IT function is to a business – is the CIO on the executive committee?
COMBINING BUSINESS AND I.T. STRATEGY
Ideally, there should be no distinction between IT strategy and business strategy.
“The business strategy and the IT strategy must be dealt with at the same time by business and IT people in partnership, as opposed to those strategies being seen as totally separate things with some linkages,” says Burlton of The Process Renewal Consulting Group.
Alacrity’s Chung agrees. “Assuming that an organization actually has a planning and strategy process, as opposed to an annual budgeting and numbers process, then the IT process [should be] very much part of the business strategy process,” she asserts.
It is not enough to define the business strategy first and then separately try to create an IT strategy that supports it. “If you are aligning yourself with the business, then you should be following the same cycle,” says Carreiro of Keane Canada. “In fact, some very good CIOs that I know are part of the business planning cycle.” This benefits both the IT and the business sides. “The business gets an understanding of what’s possible, and it’s usually more than they thought.”
Carreiro believes the walls between IT and business planning are breaking down. “There’s a much tighter alignment to the business requirements, as opposed to the insular, day-to-day, tactical type of approach,” he says. “But there’s still a culture gap.”
Another popular method of opening the communication lines with business units is to appoint business relationship managers who work within the business units and serve as liaisons between IT and the business.
Eric Wilson, CIO at Philip Services Corp. in Hamilton, Ont., has used this method before and is now laying the groundwork to do it again at Philip. These people will “live out in the business” and will simultaneously try to understand what the business needs from IT, while educating the business units about technology’s possibilities.
Wilson’s approach calls for business relationship managers to work with the business units to determine how technology can help them meet their goals. The managers will then present their lists of technology needs to a central steering committee, which will face the challenge of setting priorities. The steering committee will review those priorities every two to three months.
While different organizations approach the problem in different ways, the good news is that more of them are trying to get IS strategy in tune with business priorities. “It really does vary, but I’ve certainly been seeing much more effort,” says Chung.
Though most IS organizations are not very good at strategic planning, says Burlton, he agrees that there are encouraging signs. At seminars people are now asking many more questions about the strategic end rather than just the tactical end, he says. The reason? They’ve been discovering that although they’ve been doing a good job, they’ve been solving the wrong problems.
Not all the responsibility lies with the IT people, of course. While the IT staff are sometimes to blame for failing to take an interest in business strategy, Burlton says, “in many cases the business strategic planning people don’t want them involved.” In that case, the first challenge for IT is somehow to convince the business people that IT is critical to the business and should have a place at the business-planning table.
Wherever the resistance to closer ties between IT and the business may lie, Rafuse suggests that bringing in someone who can provide a view from the outside may be one way to overcome the inertia. A consultant may be able to help people evaluate what they are doing in a less confrontational way than people inside the organization could do it, and help them realize they could be doing better. “As an IT consultant going into a company, I’m able to play the role of a go-between between the user and IT,” he says.
MAKING THE WISH LIST HAPPEN
Once you know what the business needs and wants, the next challenge is to figure out how to make those wish lists possible. Sometimes users’ dreams may be unrealizable. More often, they will be possible but it will take time to get there, which is one reason why IT organizations need to plan for the long term. On the other hand, the technology world changes very fast, and so do business strategies these days. So it makes little sense to work out detailed plans for five years hence. The sensible approach is to plan in greater detail for the near term and paint the future only in broad strokes.
“We tend to be too consistent,” Rafuse says, meaning that IT people often try to put the same level of detail in every year of the plan. That’s wrong. The first year should be detailed, the later years much less so. But the later years are important because only by looking at where you are going in the long term can you realize what you will have to do to get there – in time to do it. That means you’ve got to have a long-term vision that goes out farther than the traditional three-to-five-year planning horizon.
In the short term, Carreiro advises picking about three critical IT projects on which to focus, defining the results expected from them, and making sure those results are achieved. “To get users to invest in the short term, you have to give them reasons,” he explains.
Nor can the short-term plan be laid out without considering the longer term. For example, the long-range view may tell you that you don’t want to invest too much in a certain application now, because in a year or two it will have to be replaced.
“IT is all about tradeoffs,” warns Chung, “and if you trade off only for a very near term, you’re going to lose.”
Terry Davis at Home Hardware says there is a level of IT planning that goes on behind the scenes, out of sight of the rest of the business. This is the level at which IT thinks about infrastructure issues and technology architectures. “Our mandate is to ensure that we can always deliver whatever is asked of us,” Davis says, and he takes care to make sure he will not some day be unable to deliver because his department has not done its technology homework.
Even this type of IT planning depends heavily on general business directions, though. For example, says Carreiro, suppose a company plans to grow 20 per cent in Asia in the coming year. One of the questions IT people need to ask themselves is whether the company’s communications infrastructure in that region is ready for such growth.
Training is an issue too often ignored in long-range IT planning, adds Carreiro. An IT organization needs to look at where it will be going over the medium term and consider what retraining – of both IT specialists and end users – will have to be done in order to get there. The fact that many organizations are simultaneously laying off people whose skills it no longer needs and hiring new people to meet new needs is a sign that many businesses are not doing a good job of this.
Of course, it is part of the IT group’s job to be aware of new technology and trends. At Home Hardware, Davis wants to keep the business side informed of emerging possibilities, in case they could be useful. “I think we look farther out just because there may be technology that we want to raise an awareness of without strongly promoting it to the business owners.” But at the same time, a corporate IT department isn’t the MIT Media Lab. “Because of the size of the department,” Davis says, “we want to ensure that we are not experimental, that we’re working with something that is pretty stable if we’re going to introduce it to one of the departments here.”
Indeed, getting too caught up in technology is one of the major pitfalls IT people must avoid in the strategic planning process. The other is failing to get the support of key business executives. That support serves an important purpose. Inevitably, some of your decisions about strategy will be questioned later. Even when the decision was the best one at the time, some will probably turn out in hindsight to have been wrong. It helps to be able to remind everyone that they all agreed to the decision in the first place.
You may not always be able to predict the future, but at least you can ensure that the past doesn’t come back to haunt you.
Grant Buckler is a freelance writer specializing in information technology and IT management. He is based in Kingston, Ont.