IT Strategic Planning: Understand Where Your Customers Are Headed

Aligning agency plans and needs.

by / September 23, 2008
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The problem with many IT strategic planning efforts is that they begin and end in IT. Additionally the resultant plans are typically full of geek speak and a list of technology projects with little or no linkage to the organization's service delivery strategy and needs. Also the mantra "IT doesn't understand our business needs" is being chanted nationwide, often as justification for decentralizing IT resources.

So how can IT improve the strategic planning process and better understand the needs of the business units it serves?

Walking in Their Shoes
Since IT is a support function, one of the best ways to align services with the organization's needs is to better understand its operations. Spending some time in the environments is educational.

During my public-sector career, I visited libraries, museums, senior centers, parks, kennels, mental health facilities, automotive repair shops, wastewater treatment plants, call centers and even a few morgues. I operated a radar gun, flew in a fire department helicopter, and even graduated from a citizen police academy despite hyperventilating during the shoot/don't shoot exercise.

These experiences provided valuable information regarding the organization's business processes, and spending time with the business units also improved communications, fostered working relationships and helped earn their respect.

Understanding Where They're Going
While gaining a better understanding of operations serves as the foundation for a relevant strategic plan, directly involving the lines of business in the plan's development takes it a step further.

A successful way to align the plan with the organization's strategy is to listen to each department's needs and business priorities. The process is often eye-opening and almost always difficult since it's hard to hear the wish list without considering the underlying work required to make things happen.

At the very least, these sessions ensure that you know what they're thinking. Recurring themes emerge that translate into multidepartmental strategic technology initiatives. Of course, more planning sessions are then needed to flesh out these initiatives and identify priorities.

Completing the Plan
A technology strategic plan requires more than jotting down needs; other planning activities help round it out. Performing a SWOT analysis to identify the organization's technology-related strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats - as well as researching similar organizations - provides additional input and context for the plan.

Prioritization of the wish list through the IT governance process ensures "top of the list" IT projects closely align with the organization's overall strategy.

Some organizations also consider measurements such as the results of IT customer and employee satisfaction surveys. This leads to a strategic technology plan for the organization that serves as the launching point for a more technical supporting IT strategy.

Today's strategic planning process is a far cry from the all-day, retreat-style planning process used in the early 1990s. The planning sessions we conduct for our clients typically last no longer than two hours each and always include premeeting material like questionnaires and technology briefs.

Following best-practice meeting management techniques like using an agenda, establishing meeting guidelines, "parking" nonrelevant issues, and having an objective meeting facilitator result in efficient planning sessions. In addition, appropriate representation from across the business units and only planning two to three years out are effective approaches.

Finally, using an iterative process that invites feedback from the business units and the organization's leadership, and conducting annual updates, ensures that the plan is relevant and remains so.

And don't forget to get out of the office and visit with the many agencies your IT department serves. It will keep you informed and prepared for the next strategic plan. In some cases, you might learn more than you bargained for.

Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas