Becoming part of the Strategic Process

 Becoming part of the Strategic Process

Jim Long, Director of University Information Systems, William Woods University

If you are an IT leader, you don’t need to be told you are valuable to your institution’s strategic process. You see it every day in the news you read, websites you visit, and dozens (100s?) of unsolicited e-mails. The call for IT to be part of the strategic leadership has never been greater, or more well deserved.
Unfortunately, not everybody gets the message. In many cases, institutions don’t see the added value of bringing IT into the conversation early enough to get the full value of their knowledge. All too often, IT is brought in once the decisions have been made, to help with the implementation. It adds value, but the institution is missing an opportunity. The question then, is to get the rest of the team to understand how valuable IT can be, when those teams haven’t really “gotten it” yet. Fortunately, you have a wide range of tools in your belt to help you with the goal. Many of these tools you use so frequently and use so well, you might have forgotten about them. If there is not top-down direction for IT to be part of the strategic conversation, here are some ideas for making the case, from the bottom up.
First and, perhaps, foremost, you probably have strong process and planning skills. We all know IT changes rapidly. By the very nature of our jobs, we have to keep looking forward. Consequently, we are used to looking into the future, making predictions, and acting. To be successful within our business unit, we have to project and plan accordingly. While other teams certainly plan, many do not face the rapid growth common in IT. For an IT leader, being prepared for the change, and having the processes to handle it, is almost second nature.
You can use the attitude and skills of embracing change and being prepared for your team’s benefit. Letting your institution peers know what is on the horizon within IT shows them you are already thinking ahead. Discussing your plans for dealing with future issues reinforces your forward-thinking mentality. Reiterating them you have strong processes to help achieve success keeps them calm and confident despite the unknown future.
We all have long-term projects, any one of which can be a good example to others of our skills and abilities to think and act strategically: cyber security, Internet of Things, growth of wireless, virtualization, etc. Any project, which has the ability to impact the institution, could serve as a touchstone for discussing and being involved with the overall strategic plan. Second, even if the institution looks at IT as a cost center, you are undoubtedly saving the company money, time, and resources. IT makes everybody move efficient. Although there are certainly costs, some of them large, these costs allow multiple teams to save time and resources and move the company ahead. Good technology allows you to innovate. Other teams who are leveraging good technology to improve the business, save money and time, and position the company for the future are your success stories. These teams are successful, in large part, because IT is looking forward – helping them do more in less time with fewer resources. That efficiency is certainly part of other teams’ strategic plans, so make it part of yours as well.
Third, forwarding thinking designs and planning are exciting, even to those outside of IT. It’s called the bleeding edge because that’s where the blood is spilled. Many institutions and leaders hesitate to live on that edge, for good reasons. However, in IT you are already comfortable with the idea of picking your battles, strategically, and moving forward. Aligning those projects with other stakeholders gives you an evangelist and additional resources to move ahead. It also reinforces the concept of careful planning and execution.
For example, say another team is interested in a 3D printer. Is this a bad idea or a good idea or a great Idea? Is it strategic or a waste of time and resources? The truth is, it can be any of those things, depending on how it’s positioned. The hardware could be a cornerstone of a strategic plan positioning the other team for future success. Or, you could be spending resources on expensive coffee cups and trinkets. Getting involved in such a department-strategic project early allows IT to ensure the project is successful and it moves the business forward. Understanding how to use and implement forward thinking designs in a strategic way provides a success for all involved teams and positions IT as a strategic partner for other departments.
Fourth, if you think long and hard, you *might* be able to come up with the name of an employee who does not use IT regularly. Said the other way, is there a team, business function, or project IT is not ultimately involved in at some level? Who has better visibility into the workings of other teams than IT? Who is regularly called up on provide cross-team support and business integration? While occasionally frustrating, this broad business knowledge and consistent integration into the plans and projects of other teams makes IT uniquely positioned to understand the institution as a whole.Taking the knowledge of this “complete picture” and moving forward helps IT and the other teams as well. When IT has knowledge of another team’s plans, they are positioned to inform and assist other teams who have to react to those changes. There are two great benefits here. One, IT can help make sure departmental plans are positioned for success within all teams affected. Second, keeping surprises to a minimum and assisting other teams with their required updates builds increasing good will within those teams. The cycle of communication and planning improves and grows more rapid as teams rely on IT to help them within their departments on projects important to them.
Fifth, IT may be the most mature business unit within the company. Regardless of the age of the institution, IT must reinvent itself regularly. With other teams, maybe not. Entire institutions may be fundamentally the same over the course of many, many years. Or, the institution many be in an emerging market where the rules and processes are still being defined. Teams scramble to understand their customers, changing along the way. As contrary as it might sound, IT can be either the disruptor or the calming voice in such cases, helping those teams achieve strategic goals.Like water and electricity, your constituents expect their data to be always there, all the time. This expectation is at the heart of many of their frustrations. They want it and they want it now. IT is built on that expectation. You are doing that right now – innovating, reinforcing policies, training, and communicating to make that happen on a consistent basis. That requires discipline, forethought, and no small amount of courage to take steps (or not) to make sure the data is always there. Consequently, the business maturity of your department might exceed the maturity of the company as a whole. If so, IT can be the example for other teams. “How does IT do it – they’ve already invented the wheel, so let’s use theirs.” Share those processes and lead the way by communicating what you are likely already doing.
Now, where to start? Nobody likes advise, so here’s a suggestion. Start with an IT strategic plan. It will likely be initially incomplete and probably won’t measure up to your internal expectations, but get it on paper. This is the very essence of a living document; it will change frequently, so it is all right if the first draft isn’t as good as you desire. There are a lot of good resources out there to help with the plan; however, it will have a couple of parts: business goals, IT goals, and projects. The plan informs everyone, these are the projects IT is pursuing, which support the IT goals, which support our business goals. Every IT project, great or small, it tied back to IT goals, which are linked to business goals. Whether a work order or long term project, IT asks, “how is this strategic?” Truthfully, that’s a hard question for some teams to answer about some requests. However, if they can’t answer the question, why do they want the work? Understanding how a project is strategic allows the project to be properly prioritized, with the proper resources.
Initially, even if IT is not part of the strategic conversation, these ideas continue to reinforce the value IT provides to the strategic process and the overall strategy of the company. Although IT might not be viewed an important strategic partner within the organization initially, continuing to reinforces these basic IT strengths, educating peers and senior managers alike on the inherent value of having IT become part of the discussion early. Nothing breeds success like success. Build on team successes and continually communicate the strengths of IT. Strategic involvement, and leadership, will follow.

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