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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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 ...

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