Musings on IT strategy

May 2016

Knight chess pieceSteve Burrows and Jon G. Hall, Chair and Immediate Past Chair of BCS Effective Leadership in IT Group (ELITE), discuss if IT strategy is more about problem solving than about the adoption of new technologies.

A new CIO, a new broom... Which modern CIO wouldn’t want ‘The new way to work together’ as promised by SharePoint1? After all, SharePoint has benefits for users: ‘Connect with employees across the enterprise (and) reinvent the way you work together.’ And the IT function: ‘SharePoint provides powerful controls that allow IT departments to manage cost, risk, and their time.’

SharePoint should be part of every modern CIO’s strategy? Yes? Yes, of course! But it isn’t the strategy.

Technological innovation is the engine of the UK but it does not do the driving. The UK is driven by those individuals with business problems the solutions to which deliver business value. But the systems they work with are not technological. They are socio-technical: vast arrays of hardware, software, and, most importantly, wetware. Their scope stretches all the way from the cleaner polishing desks that have confidential purchasing plans left on them overnight, to the water cooler where all the best ideas are conceived; from the most distant part of the supplier chain right into their customers’ homes and workplaces.

Technology is the paper that modern strategies are written on. But the message needs to be human readable. Colleagues tell me that their SharePoint implementation isn’t used by senior managers who still print everything to read and then have their comments turned back into digital copy by their PAs. Because it hasn’t made it into their personal workflow, the people the tech could most benefit don’t, and others have to compensate because the original workflow was based on other tech that’s been removed.

For this reason, the CIO shouldn’t be in a rush to be a first adopter of a new technology. S/he’s a visionary organisational engineer, always looking towards new technology/human combinations that increase value. These first solvers experience problems first because they are the leaders of IT’s front line. They need solutions first because their organisations demand increased value before the competition. They’re ahead of the curve, because only there do the big risks pay off. They understand where they and their business are headed. They carry both the big picture and the small picture in their heads.

To do this, they need to be superhuman as they meet the irresistible forces of technology marketing and the immovable object that is the board. The message is clear: ‘Buy the right technology and all your problems will be solved.’ The technology push dazzles the board with the promise of simple change and easy gains. If the board can’t resist the door-to-door sales pitch, if they insist that the technology must be made to work within the business no matter what, then value creation is reversed. Their naivety magnifies the tech vendor’s commercial imperative as a business value destroyer.

To stop this technology rush to value destruction the CIO must be the problem solving bulkhead between a tech-naïve board and the business. Resisting the new tech imperative is the hardest thing a CIO can do. But she must do it for the business’s sake.

Technology should never be ‘the strategy’

The strategy must always be about the future of the business, which will hopefully last far longer than any transient technology. Strategy needs to focus on delivering the benefits to which technology aspires - better information, enhanced communication and collaboration, greater productivity, shorter sight-lines to the customer, corporate protection etc. The tools we use to create these benefits are inevitably tactical and repeatedly superseded in the technological arms race. And if we're honest, SharePoint's a bit of a dog really, a solution looking for problems.

That being said, the technology problem isn't going away. Each technology requires its own flavour of infrastructure, and its own portfolio of skills. Integrating the technologies we use in business to create a seamless process requires.... more technology. Infrastructure is expensive, and time-consuming to deploy; we can't change it on a whim.

Similarly, skills require lead time and expense to develop so adopting new technology requires significant forethought by the technology leader - the only way of achieving truly rapid change is to throw out both baby and bathwater. The CIO must find a path by which s/he can broker the compromises between innovation and sustainability while delivering technology's benefits - and that sounds like a problem set which needs a strategic approach.

Fortunately, there's more than one way to skin a cat, technology provides many ways to deliver business benefits, and people are adaptive. The clever technology leader will invest in both assets and skills without putting on a straightjacket, and that investment will be both strategic and the product of strategy - it will be a formula by which the technology leader creates an adaptive technology environment enabling agility in the exploitation of new technologies for the purpose of improving technology benefits within the human environment and culture of the organisation.

What this means is that the technology leader must not have one strategy, but at least two: they must have a strategy for the business's exploitation of technology and a strategy for enabling the IT function to deliver - and the latter must be cognisant of technology. Decisions on skills and technologies have to be taken, they are part of the technology leader's role, but the wider business doesn't need to know about that. The business must see a strategy that leads on the solving of those business problems, which may be addressed by exploitation of technology.

The IT function must see a strategy that enables and empowers it to solve those problems by giving it the skills and tools it needs. The IT function needs stability of technology vision in order to commit with confidence, to the extent that the leader can penetrate the fog of the future, but the technology strategy must never ‘bet the farm’. Technology strategy is necessary, but like the technology it defines it is also necessarily tactical: it must be a short-term disposable strategy which may be unwound quickly if circumstances change.

Ultimately the successful technology strategy will accommodate skills now and for their evolution in the future, and also technologies now and the recognition that these will change; acknowledging that these will be both framed and distorted by the business environment. Reconciling these is the most complex and important problem for any CIO.

While the technology vendors will always be knocking at the door offering new wizardry, the reality is that the business will only pay attention if the salesmen seem to be offering solutions to their real problems, which the CIO is not. The CIO who satisfies their business has no problem with the board coming to them with demands for the latest tech wizardry; it doesn't happen because they're not in the market, they're sated. Instead they come with new business ideas and problems to share, looking for the insight, contribution and solutions which they know their technology leader will provide as the organisation's key problem solver.

Notes
1 There’s nothing special about SharePoint; for SharePoint you might read any other technology.
 

Image: iStock/88572311

Comments (4)

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  • 1
    Heather Alexander wrote on 6th Jun 2016

    As an IT strategist, I was constantly saying to my clients (whether those working for my corporate employer or those who were customers when I was self-employed), "Talk to me about WHAT you need to do, what problems you want to solve, what customers you want to reach - but don't talk to me about technology, don't talk to me about HOW we do that with specific technologies (yet)". I'd also try to persuade them to talk to (and listen to!) the employees in the front line, the ones who truly knew what the problems were and ways of overcoming them, rather than the senior managers and directors on the board. If they were prepared to do that, the chances were that the strategy would genuinely meet the needs of both the business and its customers.

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  • 2
    Luke Radford wrote on 7th Jun 2016

    Strategy that focuses in on technology too often misses the user (and the culture). An IT strategy will often cover the upgrade from product A to product B and so becomes the supplier’s strategy and not your own.

    Technology is an enabler and it can be used to do lots of different things – the question that needs to be asked is are those things of value to your business. The technology project shouldn’t become a destination (just as digitisation isn’t a destination) but should be the part of the journey that allows something else to happen.

    Three steps to develop a strategy – what is the experience today, what outcome do you want to support in the future and the enablers do you need to fill the gap as you transition.

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  • 3
    Emily Orton wrote on 7th Jul 2016

    Agreed Heather.
    The IT Strategy should be very closely linked to the business strategy and look at using technology to solve business problems, make efficiencies and finally achieve competitive advantage. There is no need to invest in technology for technology's sake. First ask, what is the problem and does this solve the problem.

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  • 4
    Wesley Maguire wrote on 7th Sep 2016

    Great paper. The last paragraph is particularly insightful with the volume of technology vendor options being as they are. We should not be afraid to have an open door to incoming demands from the board, although in my experience we do have an increasing role in vetting those solutions.

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