Let's Get Strategic! Mon 12 Feb 07
Within the IT community being "strategic" and "getting a seat at the table" are common topics of discussion. So exactly what does being strategic mean? A good definition I've found is "highly important to or an integral part of a plan of action". Based on this definition I think it is clear that the proper use of information technology is a strategic concern. However, the use information technology being strategic is far different than the information technology department being strategic. After all, we can use IT's product strategically without using the IT department. Our customers can and frequently do use outside application and infrastructure firms to develop strategic systems. Sometimes this is done with minimal to no involvement of the IT department. So why isn't the IT department strategic and what can we do about it?
Looking at the IT organization in a very simplistic form most people show it as comprised of 2 basic groups: Operations and Applications. Sure you can break this down further; Operations into PC Support, Server Support, Help Desk etc. and likewise Applications can be broken down into legacy support, new development, web or mainframe etc. For purposes of this discussion I'll leave at Operations and Applications, basically hardware and software. Both of these groups are action oriented. They are either building something or maintaining/fixing something. Ask one of these groups for help and they will cheerfully (okay so I'm an optimist) say "Tell me what you want and I'll make it for you." It's the old what are the user requirements question.
From a business model standpoint this puts us squarely on the delivery side. We are the order takers and implementers. Deciding to build a plant in a foreign country to be closer to your customers is strategic; being the engineering department that manages the construction isn't. Formulating a new marketing and advertising campaign to re-position your product into a new market is strategic; being the advertisement and graphics department producing the ads isn't. Deciding to implement a new IT system to streamline your processes, provide information for fact-based decision making is strategic; being the IT department that writes the programs and provides the PCs isn't.
Don't get me wrong, being there is nothing bad about being solely on the delivery side. I'm just saying it isn't strategic. Doing this is important. It's how we have traditionally organized IT to operate. It's what we are good at and it is what the people in IT like doing. Some people are good at sales and like it. Some people are good at manufacturing products and like it. Traditional IT likes being on the order taking and implementing side of IT projects. Being on the delivery side of technical projects is our "sweet spot" - doing what we like and what we are good at.
So if being on the delivery side is how we are organized, what we're good at and what we like doing why do we keep complaining about not being involved in the strategy? I believe it is because that much of the technology strategy that we are called upon to deliver is so poorly done. Being familiar with the technology we see the flaws in strategic assumptions about technology and how it should be used. It frustrates us. We see technology either being mis-used or under-utilized and the business fails to recognize the potential being lost.
The difficulty comes from the "technology blind spot" that the business folks have meeting up with the "business blind spot" that the IT folks have. We're the 2 proverbial ships passing in the night. To counter this you are starting to see a third component being added to IT, that of Business Analysis. The basis of this group is that it lives in both worlds. The business analysts know and understand technology but they don't get so specific as to writing code or designing databases. They know and understand business concepts but aren't the ones setting the business strategy. You can think of them as "translators" or a "bridge" that are comfortable with both technology and business and can help business properly use technology in their strategy. I recently saw a business analyst position description that described it very well, "Serves as the conduit between the customer community (internal and external customers) and the software development team through which requirements flow."
If IT wants to be strategic it has to go beyond just being an order takers and implementers. We need to take the steps necessary to add value beyond just delivery of services. A Business Analysis group can help us do this by using it to make the business strategy more effective through a proper use of technology. The bottom-line is that is if the IT department wants to be thought of as strategic they have to be willing to offer a strategic service. A Business Analysis group can do this.
Upcoming posts: How to form a Business Analysis group and what to do with it.
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