Let's step back a bit. In my view, corporate IT faces two major problems, neither of which is actually technological. First, the company's strategic managers often don't fully grasp what IT does and is capable of. While it would be easy to simply succumb and run an IT department which merely "keeps e-mail running" a transformational CIO or IT Manager can rise to the challenge.
The second major problem leads on from the first. Due to the oft-misunderstood nature of IT there is virtually a dearth of mentors and tutors for the new IT leader. Up-and-coming superstar accountants, managers, salespeople alike all have a good chance of finding someone who will take them under their wing. By contrast, the skilled "IT guy" (or gal) typically needs to figure their own way out.
One of my goals for The Wired CIO is to help, to build a community of IT professionals embarking on a career journey together. So, today, let's get a framework for strategic thinking under our collective belts.
If you are a regular reader, you will recall last time when I said it was imperative to learn your company's business objectives. The path of the CIO is one of constant alignment to these objectives.
Here's a tip: want to know why your excited pitches to management elicit little response? It is because the higher-ups don't feel any connect between what you've said and where the company is going.
Your plan is - maybe rightly, maybe wrongly - not being perceived as moving the business in the direction it wants to head. Either your goal or your strategy or your presentation needs work.
The idea was they'd get experience in requirements analysis; interviewing; teamwork; collaboration and project management and they would ideally produce something usable and beneficial to the business.
Yet year after year students would give interim project reports that detailed how their adopted business was running on Windows 98 and Microsoft Office 97 so they'd recommend (at that time) upgrading to Windows 2000 and Office 2000.
They hadn't understood their purpose.
Sure, upgrading technology has a reason and a place but in itself it is meaningless. What actual genuine business issue is being solved by this?
Now, had the students reported that the business was demonstrably in need of more modern functionality that was met by these products, and thus efficiency or security or decreased costs or increased revenue or something else was attained then that would have been wonderful.
Yet, by itself just poking around a business and saying, "yeah, I think your software is old" just perpetuates myopic viewpoints that IT is not interested in the business and that it's all a scam to constantly suck money for never-ending upgrades.
I'm reminded of another incident where my employer at the time divested itself of one business unit. I explained to the new owners and their IT contractors all the things they needed to take into account and that they and I needed to act swiftly to migrate their e-mail, their files, their domain, their network and their telecommunications.
Yet, the first action of the incoming IT support was to advocate the purchase and installation of a new server rack along with anti-static lino across the floor. This lino ended up not being cut correctly and time and effort was spent getting the installers back several times.
Meanwhile I watched with incredulity, reminding them the sale agreement stipulated a set amount of time before we finally removed access to our network.
I liken this event to the Mr. Bean movie where a crowd of art experts behold the painting of Whistler's Mother and gasp in appreciation. The hapless Mr. Bean does not understand what he is looking at or what the audience is taking in. Perplexed, he studies the painting only to announce "Nice frame!"
So, you know what this is. What can you do to leverage and exploit technology to support this mission? What infrastructure and application work must be performed to aid in this?
This is how your strategy commences: by pondering on and grappling with what your department will do to achieve these goals.
What is the current state of the company's technology platform, both in terms of infrastructure and applications? What is the idealised future state? And what series of interim states can you realistically plan that will take you there in time.
While long-term strategies are beneficial, IT - perhaps more than any other department - will need continual evaluation and refinement as technology marches on. Your end goal may not differ dramatically, but the intermediate steps can be tweaked and adjusted.
Each of your interim states must be a concrete deliverable. It is not merely enough to set major milestones that present a functional specification or some other intangible object. At each stage, you should aim to put in place a solid system that the business can use immediately and which results in savings or revenue gains or process efficiencies (which themselves translate into savings).
My last analogy for this week: consider the popular word puzzle where you must transform one word (say, horse) into another (perhaps zebra) a letter at a time. Each interim step in the process has to be a legitimate word, according to the rules of the game. While an amusing and thought-provoking mental challenge, this serves to illustrate how good IT strategy ought to be defined and implemented.
This is my message to you: become a transformational IT leader. Take your company on a technological journey which pulls in the same direction it is heading. Cast your mind to the lofty goal but plan carefully how you will get there. Now start.