I’ve seen a troubling trend these past few years and a symptom of the larger malaise that strikes many corporate IT departments. Ask a CIO about their technology plan or strategy for the coming months, and their eyes light up and in hushed awe they reverently whisper: “The Cloud.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely been beaten over the head with the wonders of cloud computing. It will slash your costs, alleviate all management pain, store your music and movies, and bring about world peace in our day. While the superlative machine in the marketing department of most cloud vendors has been working overtime, “the cloud” is nothing more than another incantation of make vs. buy or rent vs. own. We’ve been down this road before with everything from outsourcing to contract manufacturing, and the risks and rewards are identical. Presumably an external third-party vendor can perform an activity more efficiently and cheaply and allow you to quickly adjust capacity as needed. There’s certainly some marvelous technological wizardry that makes it all happen, but at the end of the day, you’re renting a service from a third-party vendor.

The cloud is a tool

Moving applications and services to the cloud may cut your costs or may impart more risk into a process, but in either case, the cloud is nothing more than a tool that should be accomplishing some business objective. Imagine if you hired a renowned builder to complete your dream home. When you sat down for your first design meeting and asked the builder his strategy and vision for your property, if he replied “The Binford Sawzall 9000,” would you feel comfortable or begin reconsidering your choice in builders? When you as CIO cite “the cloud” as your strategy, you are doing the exact same thing, citing a tool as a cornerstone of what should be a plan that accomplishes some business objective.

A decade ago, outsourcing was the “IT ‘strategy’ du jour,” and yet another case where IT referred to a tool as a strategy. There are myriad pros and cons for outsourcing certain activities, but in most cases where a tool was substituted for a real strategy, the results were disastrous. Cloud will experience the same fate unless you build a true strategic plan that just happens to include cloud services, rather than trying to build a strategy around a tool.

The cloud as a cost reducer

Reducing costs is certainly a valid strategic imperative, but it’s also a one-way ticket to commoditization and should not be the sole foundation of your cloud initiatives. Most organizations are willing to pay for people and groups that can solve business problems, and a life as a trusted adviser is usually far richer than constant demands to extract another few percent in cost reductions.

Study the problems facing your organization and spend some time with other leaders listening. You may be surprised to find that cost is not the sole driver to most of the organization’s actions; otherwise you could just fire everyone and live happily ever after. Your peers are likely struggling to enter new markets or speed the delivery of current and future products. There may be sales opportunities that are left “on the table” or thousands of hours wasted supporting crap processes that could be reallocated toward revenue generation and make a far larger impact than reducing some segment of IT expenses.

At the end of the day, no tool should be the core of any strategy, whether it’s building a house or stating the strategic plan for a Fortune 500 technology department. Thinking beyond the tools makes spending money on technology more palatable to the organization, since that spending is tied to a business objective rather than yet another mercurial technical tool or buzzword. Separating the strategy from the tools also allows you to adjust your tactics should technology or environmental factors change, without completely rethinking your strategy. In short, thinking beyond the tools gets you to true strategic planning, rather than being co-opted as a technology salesperson.