I have not been blogging for some time while traveling in several countries and meeting a lot of clients. In several recent conversations with government clients and colleagues, I have come to realize that our clients are facing certain recurring issues that even some of our best advice, often based on best practices applied elsewhere, does not seem to help solve.
One particular area is the mythical alignment of (or partnership between) business and IT. This is a topic that pops up every now and then, and even if methods, processes and tools that support strategic planning, portfolio management and benefit realization have improved, many clients still seem at loss in actively managing their IT portfolios so as to maximize public value and minimize risk. Not surprisingly, we keep hearing about project failures and misaligned expectations.
Government IT and business professionals are by no means less capable than their private sector colleagues. So where is the problem? Yes, we know that public value is more difficult to articulate than business value, because government always deals with often conflicting constituent service, operational efficiency and political goals. However, also those who seem to have cracked this and have been using public value for some time are having issues with balancing an effective portfolio.
The main reason is that today the context in which governments operate change much faster and much more radically than they did in the past. Financial crisis, economic recession, natural and man-made disasters, civil unrest, changes caused by technology to the way people work, learn, consume, socialize, consumer technology that proves good enough for professional tasks, frequent elections, political scandals instantly amplified by the network effect: all these facts, events, trends challenge existing methods and processes, and in particular do question whether IT strategic planning is still useful or even possible. This is something that I have touched upon in a previous post, where I had not explored yet the implication on strategic planning
In such a rapidly changing world, how should strategic planning look like?
When reviewing an IT strategic plan, we always ask our clients to provide a copy of their business strategic plan, in order to check whether the IT strategy is well aligned. However, in many cases not only the business strategy, but the very government that produced it may have been replaced, or may be swamped with a different set of priorities. How can IT react fast enough and reprioritize its efforts, if its strategic initiatives are closely aligned to the old (and no longer relevant) business strategy?
This implies that the IT strategy needs to be resilient to changes and failures of the business strategy. Therefore, rather than being aligned, it needs to be almost neutral with respect to the business strategy. Interestingly enough, looking at some of the strategic direction papers published in several jurisdictions, this seems an emerging style, although I doubt this is done on purpose. Looking at the UK or the draft Australian strategy, but also to the 25 points to improve IT management (Vivek Kundra’s legacy as the US federal CIO), these are more a set of principles than a real IT strategic plan. Strategic streams are mostly uncontroversial, things that make sense to do irrespective of the specific strategic objectives: consolidation of data centers, pursuing of interoperability and reuse, better information and analytics, agile approaches, involvement of smaller suppliers and so forth, these are all reasonable endeavors, although their balance is not always ideal. The strategy is no longer dominated by few, large scale and ambitious programs. They still exist of course, but the IT strategy push them toward a more scalable, lower risk approach, which is less vulnerable to failure and political changes.
This challenges the very foundations of IT strategic planning. There is no more “alignment”, and there is no blending of IT and the business either, as many – including Gartner – assume should be the case. Indeed, IT is key to the business, but rather than being subservient (i.e. “aligned”) or a driver, it rather determines a framework for the enterprise to function and transform, it sets some (flexible) boundaries to accommodate new priorities as they emerge, new ways of using internal and external information, while sustaining current service delivery and operations. IT strategies distill IT principles that will hold true whatever the business strategy.
The immediate objections to this approach are that (1) there are high profile transformational programs that cannot work unless by more traditional, careful strategic planning and strong, continued and joint business and IT leadership; and (2) there is a non-negligible risk that this gives IT a “license to kill”, i.e. to pursue its own plans and priorities, in name of “smartness” and “sustainability”.
It is quite clear that the right approach has to be a compromise between the two, depending on the particular situation. What is for sure, though, is that current approaches are too much skewed toward alignment or partnership, while IT should become the “voice of reason”, and constantly challenge the business with what is possible vs. what is desirable vs. what is absolutely required.
Developing an IT strategic plan at times of uncertainty will still require partnership with the business, but also the use of techniques such as scenario planning, under the CIO leadership. This will allow alternative and equally plausible scenarios for political and business priorities to be explored, in order to distill the architectural principles, the sourcing approaches, the infrastructural choices that make sense in most or all of those scenarios.
So, traditional IT strategic planning is about to die, and be born again, giving IT an invaluable opportunity to be in a leadership position. How many organizations will seize it?