Blog post

The Death of IT Strategic Planning?

By Andrea Di Maio | July 06, 2011 | 7 Comments

smart governmentIT management

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?

Comments are closed


  • Karl Melrose says:

    Couldnt help but thinking that this could be the point at which enterprise IT splits into operational it and strategic it.

    Operational it for supporting the day to day running of the business and incremental improvements in efficiency and effectiveness over time. Strategic it – focused on large scale, less conservative change focused on acceleration of new strategic initiatives.

  • Andrea, thanks for the post. It’s great food for thought. I tend to agree that strategic planning is often implemented as a quite static approach when following a once defined route dogmatically. And while the best route always changes, planning – even strategic planning – is a rather dynamic journey that helps to understand the impact of change before it hits reality of business, finance, IT, and regulations. In this reality, most organizations cannot track the route and changes while they’re underway which often makes the strategic plan useless and with it strategic planning. The old way of IT strategic planning, as you call it, is like planning a route on a map that you do not update, neither the information on traffic jams and constructions underway nor your current position – additionally, the (strategic) destination might change if you want to make it dependent on the weather forecast. That’s why (the new way of) IT strategic planning needs a kind of navigation system that offers a completely different and dynamic approach to planning – making again sense of the plan and with it IT strategic planning.

  • Mark Forman says:

    Totally agree that today’s central government CIOs don’t seem to have a coherent strategy, but…the fact that people at the White House and other central government offices don’t do IT strategic planning is more likely a function of the CIO’s being selected for technology prowess and continuing desire to push the CIO out of business transformation discussion. A key issue here is not death of IT strategy but diminished role of the CIO. Calling the job a CIO in the Obama Administration and then moving away from the authorities, responsibilites, and accountability created numerous laws clearly illustrates the desire of politicians to focus on form over function. In addition, politicians seem to be moving away from the ability to apply management reform concepts (which nowadays are generally technology and business case driven). Today’s management reforms require movement to shared or common services and data. Government leaders are threatened by sharing when they have to give up ownership, and rightly so because that has often led to diminished budgets. New strategies are going to be driven by future rounds of deficit reduction, which must go beyond sharing pain across programs, and focus on strategic choices…even in the US we are still at the point of shared pain instead of a strategy for effective and efficient government in the 21st century. It’s not the death of IT strategy we are seeing, but the slow death of long-standing bureacracy building strategies. Unfortunately, client-server applications that dominate government are insulators against change. But, new IT strategies will emerge in government when politicians figure out their strategy for rationalizing the bureacratic mess that worked fine last century but doesn’t today. Then, I’ll be looking for tech savy management reformers to come into the CIO role, not the techie.

  • John Sheridan says:

    Hi Andrea

    Thanks for another thought provoking post. I think, in considering this matter, it is useful to disassociate strategy and planning. The US strategy in World War II was to “defeat Germany first”. This didn’t predicate abandoning the fight against Japan but it did describe where the weight of resources would be put when a choice was required. There were various plans developed to support the strategy and numerous operations conducted. But, at the other end of the scale, my military instructors taught me that no plan survives first contact with the enemy (and no, I don’t mean vendors!). With a well defined strategy, and a clear understanding of the commander’s intent, those carrying out the plans will know what to do when things stop going the way that had been predicted. The strategic choice will have been made.

    In IT terms then, a good strategy should be on that level (and I unashamedly like the Australian Government draft ICT strategy because I think it does attempt to reach for this level). A good IT strategy should describe where the CIO should put the weight of his/her resources. Ideally, business should be involved in its formulation. Better still, it should reflect business objectives – but these can be elusive. If they are, the CIO needs to describe the different ways IT can advance the organisation and then seek business endorsement of these choices. Planning, then, can be done to implement the chosen course(s).

    Of course, in IT, our options are clouded by the march of technology. For example, I think we need to avoid saying “go to the cloud” and, rather, say “invest in a way that maximizes speed and flexibility and thus prefers opex to capex”. Typing on my iPad late at night, I’m thinking “give staff connectivity and device choice” not “buy iPads”. using principles like these (that fall out of the strategy), we can avoid legacy technology traps.

    IT has often struggled for direction from business. I wonder if it’s because we were asking for plans not strategies.



    NB: these are my personal opinions only.

  • @John – thanks for your insights, always interesting and useful. I guess we are in agreement, as I am not saying that “IT strategy” is dead, but a certain way of doing IT strategic planning is no longer acceptable. The IT strategy is indeed a set of principles, but linking it to business objectives can indeed be elusive and counterproductive. Unlike in your WWII example, also high level overwhelming business objectives are likely to change during the planning horizon.
    At the end of the day, IT strategies and strategic plans should not be developed without the business, but CIO need to step up and lead, challengin the common wisdom about alignment or even partnership. Because enterprise IT ain’t no democracy.

  • James Dellow says:

    I’m reminded of this recent post on the HBR blogs:

    The problems and woes of IT strategic planning is reductionist thinking, not the idea of having an IT strategy. If government isn’t an example of a complex dynamic system, I don’t know what is! 🙂

  • Andrea,

    Interesting piece – it was passed to me by a colleague.

    Reading your piece reminded me of the story of the IT Manager and CEO:

    IT Manager walks in to CEO Office to discuss the IT Strategy:

    CEO: I’m glad you’re here, I have lots of important things to discuss with you

    ITM: Oh, fantastic – I too have lots of ideas, having spent lots of time with all the Service Areas – I have a great understanding on how to move us forward – ensuring we make better us of what we have and spend less on what we buy – obtaining good value and establishing us as market leaders.

    CEO: emm, yes – good. But before all that – can we discuss why it takes me so long to log into the my computer? Why the internet access is so slow? and what’s all this I hear about the not being able to fix my PA’s PC because of licence keys?

    ITM: errr ……

    The IT strategy is important and should marry up your road-map of future IT services while aligning with the direction the business. Although without getting the basics right you’ll never leave the starting-blocks.

    Many organisation produce their strategy as tick-box exercise and never check or revisit it – in the present climate the strategy should leans towards an organic document – constantly shifting and changing.

    It surprises me that no thought is given to the fact that members of staff are also public citizens who use IT Services in their private lives and as such utilise much more powerful, collaborative and productive IT services outside work than inside. We really need to understand a little more about anthropology rather than bleeding-edge technology.

    One final thought that occurred to me was the concept of the triage of focus: Business as usual activities, Growing & moving the business forward and Transforming or making the business competitive in the future.

    Without equal focus of the three in your strategy (and some of the elements mentioned above) you too may be in front of the CEO muttering ’emm … errr…’