Information technology (IT) is an essential part of any organization, and with rapidly changing technologies, funding challenges, and conflicting priorities, it’s essential for organizations to have an effective plan or roadmap to follow. As Crawford Greenewalt, the former president of the DuPont Company, stated, “Every moment spent planning saves three or four in execution.” It not only saves in execution time, but an effective IT strategic plan can result in a significantly higher return on investment. According to Architecture and Governance Magazine, some Fortune 500 companies and government agencies have validated returns on investment as high as 700% as a result of their investment in IT strategic planning.
Effective strategic plans help ensure that limited resource and funding can be prioritized for the projects and initiatives that provide the greatest benefit to the organization. Most IT strategic plans are three- to five-year plans containing goals, objectives, and guiding principles. Some plans are very specific, detailing costs, resources, and timeframes, while others can be more general, leaving it up to the department manager or senior management to determine the specifics to fulfill the goals and objectives.
The process followed to develop an IT strategic plan can be just as important as the plan itself. Successful IT strategic plan development should follow a comprehensive process focused on obtaining full stakeholder involvement. Since many stakeholders are involved in funding and implementing parts of a plan, getting their buy-in is essential. The best way to obtain buy-in is to include them in the plan development process as much as possible, and by doing so, it can help ensure that specific goals and objectives in the plan receive the necessary funding and resources to implement. The project must also receive full support from upper management so that stakeholders understand the importance of the project and will commit their time and resources to it.
Many organizations utilize consultants to undertake the process of creating a plan. This helps ensure objectivity and dedicates resources that can efficiently create a plan, usually within a three- to four-month timeframe depending on the scope of the project and the size of the organization. If an organization believes it has the expertise and resources to undertake the plan creation in-house, it’s important that stakeholders outside of IT are directly involved in the plan’s creation, as this will help with objectivity and buy-in across the organization.
Plan creation also needs to follow best practices in project management. This means creating a project charter, developing and following a detailed project plan, and forming a project team with a project manager to guide and oversee the process. It is important to define roles and responsibilities up front. The project team will still play a significant role in the project, and it’s essential that the project team is composed of representatives from all major departments. Whether it’s an in-house effort or one conducted by a contractor, the term “consultant” will refer to the project leads that actually perform the bulk of the work.
The next stage in creating a plan is the discovery phase. This is where information is gathered and feedback from stakeholders is garnered. A variety of documents will be needed, including hardware and software inventories, telecommunications services, organization charts, network topology diagrams, policies and procedures, disaster recovery/continuity of operations plans, and other pertinent documents.
The consultant should also facilitate collecting feedback from all stakeholders. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including employee surveys, focus groups, and stakeholder interviews. The goal of the feedback is to assess how IT is performing and gather perspectives on what challenges and opportunities IT faces. The consultant will also want to obtain feedback from outside agencies, external customers, and gather industry best practices data.
The next phase of the project is the analysis phase. After all the data has been collected, the consultant will analyze the data, look at best practices, and perform gap analysis to determine what deficiencies exist in IT and develop initial findings and recommendations. It’s important for the consultant to obtain feedback from the project team to ensure the initial findings are on target. Some of the specific recommendations will likely require additional research and might include emerging technologies that may not be widely deployed.
The next phase is the document phase. The consultant will form the goals and objectives, develop guiding principles, and write the plan. Guiding principles help with decision-making and are intended to assist IT and management when issues or technologies come up that are not part of the goals and objectives. An example could include, “IT will take a cloud-first approach when purchasing new software.” The project team will need to provide plenty of feedback in the document phase and help with prioritizing the strategic initiatives or plan objectives. The group will also want to ensure that funding, resource, and timeframes are realistic and achievable. The consultant will then write the detailed plan and obtain feedback from the project group and other designated stakeholders.
The final phase is the review and revise phase. This is where the consultant takes the feedback and then revises and finalizes the plan. Often, the consultant or project manager will present the plan to senior management, IT staff, and other key stakeholders and publish it for internal, and sometime external, distribution, depending on the organization.
After the plan is completed, it’s just as important to implement the objectives and initiatives within the specified timeframe and within the planned budget specified. Since a lot can happen during the span of a three- to five-year plan, it’s important to track progress and update the plan. A Chinese proverb states it best, “A good plan is always under construction.” No plan will be perfectly implemented, as external factors like the economy, funding, and emerging technologies could alter the course of the plan. Disruptive technologies can especially alter the implementation. For example, no one could have predicted the impact that the original Apple iPhone had on mobile computing, which forced nearly every organization to change plans and embrace this new, groundbreaking technology. After three to five years, the organization should plan on developing a new IT strategic plan and begin the process all over again.
Michael Q. Cannon is a Principal at IMERGE Consulting. He is an expert in information technology (IT) strategic planning, IT assessments, IT project management and IT leadership. For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.