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Importance of having a technology strategy

If vested interests try to sabotage the IT strategy – it’s working

 
An IT strategy is probably the most important document that a Chief Information Officer (CIO) produces – and the most difficult to get right. Done well, by someone who has a broad overview of both business goals and the emerging IT landscape, it provides the IT roadmap for the business to forge ahead in the next five to ten years. Done poorly, done too late, or not done at all – a commoner state of affairs than one might think – it dooms the organisation to underperformance and poor productivity. 
The reason that so many IT strategies don’t meet the necessary quality benchmarks, is that the skills required to produce an effective strategy are rarely available in-house. The average IT function is full of competent managers who have a stake in the status quo. They tend to be over-involved in the immediate management of systems, projects and contracts. They are subject to intense pressure from users who always want more and better IT.

Why IT departments sabotage strategies

Few medium-sized organisations can afford the luxury of a permanent CIO to develop the strategy and push it through. That means technology strategy development is left to overstretched managers who always have something more urgent to deal with. Under pressure, they’ll put together a document that is less an IT roadmap pointing to future productivity and efficiency gains, more a set of medium-term fixes with a couple of new systems thrown in. They can’t be expected to have a good sense of what competitive advantage could be achieved through the use of new technology because they aren’t paid to – they are paid to manage IT, and modernise it a bit. 

What they aren’t paid to do, and indeed have every reason to avoid doing, is to disrupt the business model completely and implement a profoundly different IT strategy. Why would they? They would feel like turkeys voting for Christmas if they put together the kind of radical strategy that might be required for the business – because they might not be required in that business.

So part of the problem in producing a sharply focused technology strategy, are the vested interests within the IT department itself. The new proposals needn’t even threaten jobs – people can become very defensive if their skills are based around a technology with which they feel comfortable, and which they are “expert” in, and the new strategy recommends ditching it and moving to IT which requires a different skill set. It’s a surprising thing and yet well attested in business, that IT staff can be some of the most change-resistant and reactionary in the whole business. These entrenched attitudes are often disguised in a blizzard of technical jargon which appears to depersonalise what are in fact, deeply held prejudices and opinions that have never been challenged. 

Interim CIOs- better informed, more objective

Even if the business bites the bullet and recruits a CIO, there’s always the risk that sooner or later, the new posting is “captured” by the IT department which does its level best to make sure that any disruptive ideas in the IT strategy are watered down before the strategy reaches board level. Clearly it’s difficult for someone who wants to make a success of a long-term job, to begin by antagonising colleagues, even though this may be essential for the productivity and even survival of the business. 

Enter the interim CIO, who comes with a couple of major advantages. First, they’ve done this before – they will have been in many different organisations, and are experts at developing strategy that links to business goals and drivers, to deliver competitive advantage. They have a broad overview of where similar organisations are heading, what works and what doesn’t, and what technology investment is needed to get to the goal. 

Second, they aren’t looking to have a career in the organisation, so they don’t come with the baggage of alliances , enmities, and corporate history that encumbers many in-house managers. That doesn’t mean they’re not interested in how the company arrived at its current position – just that they don’t have a stake in it, and can view it more objectively. They tend to have a wider view of the way IT is developing and how to profit from new products, applications and methods. 

Looking forward, quantifying risks and opportunities 

They will be able to draw up a strategy that links strategic aims to the technology which is capable of delivering them coherently over the medium term. They’ll look at planning, delivery principles, leveraging opportunities, risk management, growth requirements, governance, solution development, capability and resourcing. They’ll tie these to the strategic business aims, so that risks are quantified and a delivery model is developed. And they’ll map out where the business is headed, medium-term. They’ll also – this is essential but often overlooked – be very specific about what the business is not going to do, or is going to stop doing. 

The IT strategy needs to be developed at CIO level but for most medium-sized businesses it’s not desirable or affordable to create a post. So businesses tend to take advantage of the talented interim CIOs out there, who won’t be afraid to rock the boat if that’s what the business needs.

Topics: Management, Strategy, Productivity

Written by Andrew Allen

As a Professional Member of The Chartered Institute for IT and his nearly 20 years in business, Andrew is able to connect with and help executives and owners leverage the power of technology to deliver lasting results.

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