Plan IT right and you will succeed – Part 2

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We ask them: What are you measured on? What affects your business? We’re getting more two-way communication going. Contrary to popular belief, a CIO doesn’t have to have the proverbial “seat at the table” to involve the business in IT planning. In fact, says Cullen, involving the business in IT strategic planning “is a way to earn that seat.”

“One of the big mistakes made when it comes to creating an IT strategic plan is that people model it after a kid who goes off into his bedroom to do his homework and then shows it to his teacher the next day,” says Gartner’s Aron. “You have to engage the business throughout the process of creating the plan.”

Lin has created IT-business partner roles at Dolby to get input on strategy year-round. “It happens not just on the executive levels but throughout the company. And not just once a year at budget time,” says Lin. This year IT wanted to set IT infrastructure standards for the company as part of the annual plan. “Instead of IT making the decision, we asked the business infrastructure steering committee to delegate people to a standards subcommittee,” Lin relates.

With that kind of model, Lin no longer has to sell his strategic plan to the business. Now, “The committee we present it to is actually involved in creating it,” he says.

If the business isn’t involved, the most well-intentioned, well-conceived IT strategic plan can go south in a hurry. “You show the plan to the business, they nod their head, say, ‘Sounds like a good plan you’ve got there, go do it,'” says Forrester’s Cullen. “Meanwhile they’re thinking, ‘Why’d you tell me this? It doesn’t involve me at all. And don’t ask me for money for it because it’s not linked to business needs.'”

Devoting 10 pages of the strategic plan to IT’s goals for Web 2.0 might seem like a good idea within the IT department. Problem is, the CFO you’re presenting it to is upset that his e-mail box is restricted to 100 megs and “you end up with the thing CIOs are most afraid of when they present their plan: people scratching their heads,” says Cullen.

Hites now holds an annual IT planning conference at New Mexico State every October, meeting with a crowd of about 100 IT and university leaders. Last fall, they spent a lot of time talking about what Facebook and MySpace meant for the school and whether the curriculum should be integrated with such social networking sites. The conferences are something he started at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Before that, we did planning only internally,” says Hites. But that generated “some tension and was interpreted as, central IT wants us to do this while we want to do this other thing,” says Hites. “It was ineffective.”

Bringing the business into the strategic planning process doesn’t have to be as formal a process as Hites’s. Jones of the National Marrow Donor Program does it by having conversations with stakeholders.

“I talk to people from the C level on down to the basement. I ask them how things are operating, what works well, what doesn’t work well,” he says. He then asks people in IT the same questions, which either validates his accumulated information or reveals disconnects that need to be explored.

These conversations help Jones “connect what’s in the IT plan to the everyday needs of people in business terms.”

“The CIO can go to peers and say, ‘What do you expect from IT?’ ‘What’s the importance of technology?'” says Cullen. “If the answer is, ‘I don’t know what I want because I don’t know what you’re capable of,’ then that may be the focus on the IT strategic plan this year: defining the role of IT.”

“If you walk in with a blank sheet of paper, you may walk out with a blank sheet of paper,” says Aron. “Instead say, ‘We think you’re in this kind of business, this is what it will take for you to win and this is what IT can do to help you. Is that right?’

“It’s not bad to get it wrong,” Aron adds. “Sometimes a wrong or controversial hypothesis will get them talking.”

For example, a bank CIO could walk in to the VP of customer service and say, “From what I understand, the bank is going to succeed based on its superior understanding of the customer so we think IT should focus on analytical customer relationship management.” That VP may say, “No, we’re going to win those customers by being low-cost.” Now the CIO has something solid around which to build an IT strategic plan.

Excuses, Excuses

Given the choice between creating an IT strategic plan and having a root canal, many CIOs would choose the endodontist. “No one would say they love doing it,” says Orlov. “[But] it’s a pause for thinking and a divergence from reacting and responding.”

However, many CIOs find it impossible to pause. “I hear that a lot: ‘I’m too busy with the day-to-day.’ ‘I spent time on that last year and it was pointless,'” says Forrester’s Cameron. And with the increasing complexity in IT, the dread surrounding strategic planning has grown.

“At the moment, you have these three tectonic plates converging in IT: the need for growth and innovation, continued cost discipline as a result of the credit crunch and IT’s changing role in the business,” says Aron. “With those three things pushing against each other, strategic planning can get very complicated.”

But if strategic planning is like getting a root canal, remember: You endure the pain now in order to prevent a greater agony later on.

“[Strategic planning is] the one tool CIOs can use to communicate the value of IT,” says Orlov. “It’s something that can shore them up and arm them when people challenge them about what IT is doing. So you have to set aside some quality time for that.”

During her last six-month evaluation of IT’s progress, Petit gave her department an A for being a lost-cost, high-value provider of IT services but a D on working with the product development team to incorporate technology into KI’s furniture products.

“We had a goal to have an innovation group within the IT department and that hasn’t happened,” says Petit. “We spend a lot of time operationally and less time looking into the future.”

Not surprisingly, Petit has trouble making time for planning. “It’s a struggle,” she says. “It’s so easy to get dragged back into daily operations because we’re staffed so lean and mean.”

To fight that pull, Petit keeps a bar chart taped to her computer screen tracking how much time she’s spending with other managers, talking to external peers, meeting with vendors. Anything not project- or operations-related counts.

The goal is to hit 32 hours a month, or 20 percent of her time (although she tracks it in minutes, 1,920 of them) spent planning. “In bigger companies, where the CIO role is more strategically focused and people wear one hat, strategic planning is probably a lot easier,” she guesses. “But in small to mid-sized companies, we have to wear a lot of hats.”

Her boss, in theory, supports her efforts to spend more time thinking strategically. “But when it comes down to whether you’re going to do something about strategic planning or the network is down,” she says, “you’re going to take care of the network.”

Exante’s Kelly says that if strategic planning is important, IT needs to put its money where its mouth is. “Often the problem is financial,” Kelly says. “Everything is focused on capital expenses.”

Kelly says he has invested in people and processes to make sure the IT strategic plan remains a priority. “You need a dedicated team,” he says. “Most organizations don’t assign IT strategic planning to someone as a full-time job. Hence it doesn’t become a discipline; it becomes a burden.” But Kelly made strategic planning the full-time responsibility of his directors. “Once the positions were open,” he says, “we found people were itching to do it.”

“Someone in IT should be thinking about IT strategy most of the time,” agrees Orlov. “And their job the rest of the time should be making sure they’re connected to everything that’s going on in the business.”

If an IT leader (or his reports) can set aside extra time for strategic planning now, the theory is that it will become an organic part of their lives and interactions, less like a series of appointments that you’d just as soon cancel.
And it will get easier.

“If you did a strategic plan for the first time last year, you’ll find that this year it takes less time. And next year will be even better,” says Cullen. “You can focus more time on discussions with people and less time on the mechanics of putting it together.

“It could even become the part you like best about your job because that’s where you can talk about what you want to do and why it matters to the organization.”

And that’s fun. Which is why strategic planning isn’t really like a root canal. Root canals have no fun parts.

Other stories by Stephanie Overby © 2008 CXO Media Inc.

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