Leadership

The best IT strategy is no IT strategy

The typical IT strategy doesn't work because your CEO doesn't care if you have a plan for the cloud or an earth-shattering virtualization "solution." He cares about dominating a market or increasing sales.

You have likely heard all the admonitions to be "more strategic" as an IT leader, and probably were told that the first step on that long winding road was to develop an "IT strategy." This usually takes the form of a long-winded document, ripe with complex diagrams, impressive sounding technologies, and perhaps even some Excel clippings with financial machinations in an attempt to give the whole thing an air of business legitimacy. After months of sweating over this document, and perhaps even employing a small cadre of internal employees and consultants to assist, you made a grand presentation and handed out a glossy binder containing your "strategy," only to be met with banalities and seeing your document in the waste bin on your way out of the office.

The problem with IT "strategy"

The reason most of these "strategic" discussions are met with the corporate equivalent of a barely muted yawn is that they are not strategic at all. The preponderance of IT strategy documents are tactical plans detailing various technologies that the company is implementing, considering or watching, and perhaps making a half-hearted connection with what the larger corporation is doing. If your "strategy" document mentions clouds, virtualization, ERP or any commodity operating system, it likely falls into this category, and legitimately is met with little excitement, just as a plan from the CFO detailing the nuances of accounting principles and the novel debits and credits that will be implemented by finance would be met with a resounding thud.

Furthermore, a strategy document centered on various technologies is really not particularly strategic, unless you are Google or Microsoft and in the technology business. Your CEO and CFO really don't care if you have a plan for the cloud, or are implementing an earth-shattering virtualization "solution," they care about dominating a market, releasing a new killer product, or increasing sales.

There is no strategy other than corporate strategy

At the end of the day, there is really only one true strategic player in the organization, the CEO and his or her counterparts on the board. All the other officers of the corporation must use their respective organizations to help the CEO execute on their strategy. That's why IT strategy documents usually fail and only sharpen the divisions between IT and the rest of the organization; most other business units align their activities to the corporate strategy, while IT attempts to create its own "strategy" centered on technology. It's a bit like the used car salesman trying to peddle the high-margin two-seater sports car on the lot, despite the fact that you explicitly mentioned your wife, three kids and 80-pound dog. The sales guy may have a deep mastery of the technical and aesthetic attributes of the sports car, but his "strategy" is at odds with yours, no matter how knowledgeable he is about the product or how it could be applied to your problem.

So, what's a CIO to do?

Once you become convinced that there's no strategy other than corporate strategy, you can throw all the tired talk of alignment out the window since you're naturally aligned once you stop contemplating misguided technology strategies and start looking at how IT can help execute on the overall corporate strategy. As a technologist, this is where you can start marrying technologies to the corporate strategy, keeping in mind that successfully executing on the strategic objective is more important than the tools used to get there. This mindset adds a healthy dose of pragmatism to IT, and also directly marries the corporate strategy (there's your "alignment") to what IT is doing, and brings a results-oriented focus to IT. Rather than cooking up ROI numbers, or attempting to assign a "business benefit" to the cost of sending a single email, this mindset puts IT in the business strategy/business results cause/effect chain far more naturally.

You are welcome and encouraged to send out occasional briefs about new technologies that you are monitoring that may impact the corporation and, of course, leverage new technical innovations to reduce IT operating costs, but these are no longer the basis of a half-hearted strategy document. With IT's focus squarely on the execution side of the house where it belongs, it becomes far more difficult to question its benefit.

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About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

21 comments
NickNielsen
NickNielsen

And so corporate sets the strategy to increase sales by 10%. And marketing and sales consult and decide the best way to do that is for field sales people to have constant access to the corporate website and intranet on the latest portable/mobile devices. And at the end of it all, IT is given "This is what we want you to do, this is your budget." And when the budget works out to $50/salesperson/month, not including the initial equipment buy, IT takes the hit either because the solution they could afford didn't work...again...or they went over budget...again.

Yangtze
Yangtze

Sorry, but I had to "steal" that one. Every function within a company should push ONE goal. As you wrote, Patrick, the HOW is irrelevant. Strategy is the answer to "WHY do we do this?"

rtdney
rtdney

You are 100% right Patrick; I hope you enrich the subject on "How to marry IT to Business strategy?". Kind Regards, RT

TerenceNY
TerenceNY

Patrick, you are right, most IT leaders make the mistakes you mentioned above. They mistake strategic plans with tactical plans. They start with new technology rather than with the business goals. But that doesn't mean IT shouldn't do strategy. IT just needs to do strategy properly. Let's pick another department, sales for example. As corporate goals are being set, sales is involved, if they can't sell the products or services being considered the CEO doesn't want to find out after the fact. So they need to interject their expertise and be involved in the process of setting goals. Once everyone has weighed in, and the goals are set they (Sales) needs to create a strategy for hitting those goals. Will they focus domestically or internationally, how will they differentiate their products, etc. In the same way, IT needs to be involved in both the goal setting process and in establishing a strategy that highlights their plan for reaching those goals. Just like sales, marketing, operations, etc. Happy to talk further, Terence Finn http://www.linkedin.com/in/terencefinn http://terencefinn.brandyourself.com/

public_domain
public_domain

the problem with it's are that they are directed into existence by stupid ceo's who have no talent and want nothing more that to hang the blame on someone else when things go bad - like hang the blame in windozer,inc. this is nothing short of cowardice and stupidity which is the same mental framework that has so screwed up so many corporations.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

you have to align the sectors, with the divisions, within the company before you even begin to talk hardware / software implementation schedules. Should you find that your strategy is sitting in the refuse basket reevaluate your corp - IT alignment pattern and work out where the cross over to technical jargon alienated your target audience base. ~Grin

Abdullahsal
Abdullahsal

These IT initiatives should be executed within an IT Strategy as a tool for adequate initiative prioritization, articulation, balanced change affect over time, least disruptive and most importantly optimally directed towards corporate strategy. To Conclude, There has to be a "corporate-inspired" IT Strategy.

matthew.geer
matthew.geer

As a Technology Strategy leader I understand your angle but it's important to understand the difference between the Strategy and Roadmap artifact and the use of Strategic analysis to build alignment with the supported business unit. No IT Strategy can live on it's own, which is why I advocate a single integrated Business/Technology Strategy.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

that is removed from the business strategy as it deals with the grit of actual IT factors. Just like the marketing people have their own internal 'how it actually gets done' plan that is separate from 'what we want to achieve' plan.

JamesRL
JamesRL

It is consistent with what I've been taught in classrooms and seen in practise. If there is to be an IT strategy it has to focus on the overall corporate strategy. The challenge some times is in getting the corporate strategy in enough detail to see how IT can support it in real concrete measures. I took a course called "aligning IT strategy with Corporate strategy" and the most interesting part was, how to create an IT strategy if a corporate strategy doesn't exist. You have to try to infer. I believe in the happy medium. No IT strategy isn't good, but if there is no corporate strategy, then it may be the way to go. The IT strategy should only attempt to be as far reaching as the corporate one.

otaku_lord
otaku_lord

mirrors my past experiences exactly. The only people who seem to care about what IT is doing is IT. The only time that anyone else cares is when budget time arises and they want to "trim some fat" and leer menacingly at the IT budget because we "don't make the company any money."

jlparrish
jlparrish

While letting business strategy drive IT is unquestionably the right thing to do, there is a real danger in my opinion for not having an IT strategy. Blindly adapting your IT to suit business needs without (at a minimum) some overarching plan on how you plan on evolving your IT will result in the creation of complex IT infrastructures that will be costly and difficult to manage. Long live the happy medium!

it_junkie
it_junkie

If you're a CIO and don't understand the goal of achieving alignment of the IT strategy with the overall corporate strategy then there is a bigger problem. This should be a prerequisite for any CIO sitting in that role. The goal is to not only create a roadmap but to also 'sell' your IT vision and how it aligns with the overall corporate strategy. If your IT strategy has a mind of its own and contains zero alignment, this is where it becomes boring and ineffective.

JulianSammy
JulianSammy

I agree that the business should take the lead on almost all aspects of strategy. I usually consider IT to be like any other infrastructure / support group. For example, finance, security, real estate and Janitors all exist to keep the business operating, but (usually) do not set the direction of the business. I wonder if IT is different in kind from these, due to its: - extreme pace of change - compete integration into all aspects of the business - regular creation of entirely new channels for customer interactions. Consider that in the last two decades we've gone from static websites, through interactive websites, to social networks. We're in the throes of discovering mobile computing, with location-aware services starting to hit the mainstream. I suspect that many business strategies have failed because they did not address--or at least allow for--these transformations. In this context, it appears to me that a a technology strategy is a necessary component of a business strategy. It may not be possible to describe what your business wants to achieve without discussing both the physical and virtual environments in which you operate.

hendrah
hendrah

I'am agree with you. destroyed my courage to put IT division as a main of company, for now we just like feeder for other division especially to business operation (indonesian said "BABU"). Like my president director (owners exactly) says "your division doesn't make money, so don't spendthrift my money!", just for your information, my company fields in public transportation.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Just like common sense isn't always common. I was in an organization for a while where the IT techno geeks went off on wild adventures, attending lots of seminars and making all kinds of plans without alignment. They ended up all out of a job, and the whole IT shop was outsourced(I was gone before then). The devil is in the details. Most IT shops only get the high level corporate plans (we are going to increase revenue and cut costs). Unless they get the how, its difficult to know how they can contribute. James

mike.baker
mike.baker

It is a valid point that many IT strategies end up as shelfware or don't capture the imagination. And there is always the risk that the IT dept becomes too technically focussed. But don't kid yourself that having no strategy is an option. Think a strategy as a vision, a statement of intent. Nothing more. I've heard many question the need for a strategy. But if you do not articulate what you want to do, then how do you know you have not taken a wrong turning? Written strategies are much better than unwritten ones. The metaphor of the car salesman simply does not make sense. The problem with the salesman is that they don't understand the strategy. They aren't following it. And just by focussing on the corporate strategy involves interpreting it with respect to what you do in IT. Which is a strategy.

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