The worst mistake we can make in IT is to become so embedded in firefighting or triage activities that we lose the ability to pull back and see the “big picture”. This is most likely to happen in a situation where there’s no encompassing strategy.
A strategy shouldn’t be about having a fine level of granularity, and often it’s the perceived need for fine detail that prevents the strategy from being developed.
However, strategy really is all about the big picture rather than the miniscule details. The miniscule details are actually important, but if you stop to focus on them in the strategy, you lose the high level overview and again become mired in the mundane.
In short, the details are the purdue of the projects that come as a result of having a well defined strategy. Indeed, to quote Oxford Dictionaries Online, a strategy is:
a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim
No business actually succeeds without a strategy. (That’s why fancy management consultants are paid anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars to come up with mission statements and other such slogans. These in themselves may not necessarily be a statement of strategy, but the best ones will actually align with long-term strategy.) Similarly, no subset of a business will function to its full potential without a strategy.
Like so much of backup, the big problem in developing strategy within IT is that it’s not (solely) an IT function to define the strategy. When developed in isolation from the actual business strategy, SLAs and other functional requirements, an IT strategy is about as useful as a partition on a disk mirrored to another partition on the same disk. So it might loosely be a mirror, when you just look at the partition level – data that’s written to that partition is also written to another partition, but ultimately all it does is slow down the actual work, not fulfil its actual function, and fail to protect the data.
IT without a strategy is arguably better than IT with a strategy that isn’t coordinated with the business. Without a strategy at all, it’s pure reactionary, meaning IT is at least responding to of-the-moment business needs. With a strategy, but one that doesn’t align to the business needs, the IT group is:
- Potentially spending money on unnecessary items;
- Using staff unproductively;
- Draining resources from work the business actually does need.
To a degree, IT strategy is a core responsibility of the CIO (or the equivalent role in a smaller company); it comes from senior management in IT liaising with the rest of the business to determine business requirements, and then liaising with staff in IT to create a targeted strategy that sees suitable staff and systems development in such a way that the business benefits. That’s not to say that the CIO has to do this in isolation. It’s also not to say that it can only be achieved as an internal discussion. Indeed, there are often benefits to involving external sources in the discussion.
Let me give you a much simpler example: in IT, I think we’ve all worked on a problem, or an issue, for an extended period of time, to the point where we finally ‘give in’, and get someone to offer their thoughts. With a fresh perspective, and not mired in the day to day aspects of the issue, it’s quite common in those situations for the person to almost instantly (or seemingly instantly) offer a clear and coherent solution. The same applies practically anywhere: look at just about any field, and if someone is stuck, the best way to find a solution is to get a bit of advice from someone who isn’t personally waist or neck deep in the issue.
I’m not saying that getting consultants in to advise on IT strategy is a magic bullet. In fact, if you take that attitude you’re just going to be milked – a consultant can’t advise blind on strategy, and any consultant who says he or she can is a flim-flam artist. Instead, clear strategy development comes from all three sections – IT, business and an external agent – working together:
The order of the above diagram is actually important. The strategy must be driven by the business needs, which means it sits at the top of the process – if the business doesn’t drive the generation of the IT strategy, then the IT strategy isn’t effective. Both IT and the external advisor(s) will play a role of course, but they’re effectively supporting roles – they provide input to the process. IT provides input in terms of what can be done, what will require budget, what already exists, etc. The external source provides input in terms of what is best practice, what needs to be changed in terms of current processes and systems, and what needs to be removed.
When the three agents work together, true IT strategy is achieved.
So what should be the goals of an IT strategy? There’s actually only one goal:
- To enable the business to achieve its strategy.
Any IT strategy that doesn’t have the above as a root goal is not going to help the business. Once this is established as a goal, it’s worthwhile to consider that goals relating to say, staff development etc., are actually business goals rather than goals that should belong to any individual group.