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Do you need a business strategy to do an IT strategy?

Recently I’ve been in the situation at a couple of clients where an IT Strategy was needed, yet there was distinct lack of an agreed Business Strategy. Either the business strategy was too vague, or it did exist but work was under way to radically change in over the next 6-12 months. In these situations when I tried to facilitate the creation of the IT strategy I hit the obstacle of IT managers not feeling they could define the IT Strategy without a clearer Business Strategy, even though the CIO was asking for them to do so.

So were these IT managers right? As a consultant the worst feeling is when you’ve sold this great, strategic project and then get on the ground and realise it’s not the right thing to do. You have to return the cheque. Not a nice feeling, not simply from a cash perspective but from the sense that you somehow failed. No matter what your view is of consultants, you have to recognise that good consultants strive on the idea of making stuff happen. We hate it when it doesn’t. So in the case of the IT Strategy work I found myself conflicted. I disagreed with the IT managers – but I needed to be clear in my own head if that was because I just wanted to deliver something, prove that it could be done, or was it because I was right – there was value in defining an IT Strategy in the absence of a clear Business Strategy.

In the end I did the strategy work at both clients and was right to do so. IT Strategies can vary in scope and purpose, but in general they accomplish the following:

  • Provide direction for how the IT department will organise itself and deliver value

  • Establish how the business can better exploit technology for its gain

  • Clarify what IT will (and will not) focus on and do, in terms of investment and activities

Without a clear business strategy the above can only be defined based on people’s views on what the business needs. You can (and should) still consult business executives on what they want from IT, but need to recognise that these views will be somewhat subjective and could be odds against the true business strategy once it is finally agreed/defined. However, that is better than the alternative. The alternative is to have no IT Strategy and that is much worse.

Without an agreed IT Strategy, IT will still operate and act in ways in which it feels are important. IT managers will be subconsciously making decisions on strategic direction and on what is important. Outside of IT other business executives will also be judging IT based on what they think its strategic objectives are. In other words, without a defined IT Strategy IT will simply operate with a disjointed, non-articulated strategy, but a strategy none-the-less. It is better to define your IT strategy and make this transparent to all, than to work with a shadow strategy which is likely to miss the mark.

A final word on the two pieces of work I did for the clients with no clear business strategy. The IT strategies we defined helped set in motion conversations on what the wider Business Strategy should be, and how technology plays into that. So I can smugly sit here and claim I was right. Better to define your IT Strategy in the absence of a Business Strategy than to avoid it altogether.