principles of good IT strategy

Ever since I was a director of IT in the NHS (longer ago than I care to admit as it happens, so don’t ask), I’ve been sold on ensuring that IT strategies are precisely that: strategic. I like them to be crisp, lean, and meaningful.

Yet all too often I  encounter documents where IT strategic principles are muddled and confused with operations, tactics and a general laundry list of every other thought that occurred to its author(s) to commit to paper. When a strategy is that muddled, it usually betrays underlying muddled thinking. As a result, it’s unlikely to provide any value to the business and will often just leave IT as an incremental cost to an organisation without any meaningful benefits.

I was reminded of this the other day when conducting a review for a City CIO of his new draft strategy. The proposed IT strategy was short and crisp, running  to two pages of A4. But that wasn’t good enough for the CIO: he wanted advice on how to get it more focused, leaner, sharper – so that it would fit onto a single side of A4. Alongside it were his two other documents: a draft operational  plan and a summary of tactics, both aimed at delivering the strategy.

Each document was very clear about its purpose. Each was admirably crisp, lean and objective. After all, the organisation’s business strategy had already set out its core objectives: his interest, as CIO, was in articulating the strategic IT principles that would deliver those business objectives.

All too often I’m asked to review “IT strategies” that turn out to be rambling descriptive documents, confusing business or policy objectives, targets, processes, infrastructure and tactics. The worst also confuse activities with outcomes. They embed short-term technical issues and concerns, meaning the whole paper becomes linked to whatever current fad is driving the market, rather than taking a genuinely strategic perspective.

And all too often I find myself rewriting such strategies from scratch, based on first-hand scars and personal experience of what works. Good strategy is not about crafting a work of literature. It’s about delivering value to the business, of showing you “get” its objectives and know how to align IT with them and make them happen. Almost every line of a short IT strategy should have a direct correlation with a tangible business outcome.

In public sector terms that’s typically either about using IT to improve the quality and design of a public service, or it’s about  cutting inefficient processes, bureaucracy and overheads. Ideally both: they’re often two sides of the same coin. And IT  should be taking a leadership role in demonstrating real value, looking strategically across the silos of an organisation and removing unnecessarily complicated processes, duplication and overheads. Of course, the quid pro quo is that a good IT strategy will need the firm backing of the Board and strong leadership since a good strategy will often cut across many vested internal empires, interests and generally tread on many toes.

IT strategies are ultimately about aligning IT with the business to mutual gain. They should state very clearly the principles that govern IT and its value to the organisation. Precisely how such objectives are delivered is where the operational plan and tactics fit in. An operational plan might, for example, talk about achieving one of the strategic objectives by running down in-house commodity services and moving them to utility or commodity cloud services. Or by off-shoring a particular service. Or by bringing it back in-house. Whatever makes best sense to the business, their CIO and wherever they are trying to go.

The operational plan will typically analyse alternative service models, identify the costs and benefits of making potential changes, and detail how and when a selected transition would happen. It often takes a hard look at the issue of procuring infrastructure versus procuring capability. The operational plan will in turn require a much more detailed breakdown of every step involved in achieving the desired operational outcome, which is where the detailed tasks come in.

Unlike the overall IT strategy, both the operational plan and the tactics remain much more live, working documents, constantly capturing and reflecting where the organisation is in terms of delivery of the outcomes the strategy has committed to deliver. And regularly being tested back against the broader strategic objectives to ensure there is no drift in alignment.

So, why on earth am I setting this all out here? It all sounds like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, doesn’t it? Yet there still remain a worrying number of “IT Strategies” I encounter that muddle everything together rather than demonstrating clear thinking. That said, I’m increasingly optimistic that the situation is improving, at least if the evidence from recent meetings with various CIOs and their CEOs is anything to judge by.

But then again, maybe other approaches to successful IT strategies work for other people and other organisations? If so, I’d like to know how and why they work. And I’d be fascinated to see examples of what people think is good practice (or indeed, bad practice) …. so any links, pointers ….? Feel free to add them here. Subject to the usual problem of course: that the best and most impactful examples of good IT strategy often remain tightly confidential to their organisation. Unfortunately that means the very best examples are those we are most unlikely to ever see ….

Oh well. In the meantime, and in the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary, I’ll just continue to persevere with my well-worn rule of thumb … “Less is more“.



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