Five-step IT strategic planning guide

By Anthony Caruana
Thursday, 23 May, 2013

Five-step IT strategic planning guide

Every CIO will, at some point, have to create or update a strategic plan for how technology will meet the needs of the business. This can be a daunting task.

Strategic planning can seem like a waste of time, particularly when it comes to the use of technology. After all, technology changes rapidly so how can you plan for a five-year horizon when the next big thing might be announced tomorrow? However, it is possible to make longer-term plans. The trick is to not make you plans technology specific. They need to be outcome focused. Here’s our five-step IT strategic planning guide.

Step 1 - Define the scope of your plan

Many of the IT strategic plans we’ve seen are little more than project lists that have been fleshed out with some commentary. In many cases, there’s a desire to detail every project, large and small, in order to justify the role of IT.

Make sure the plan is focused on outcomes for the term of the plan. Any projects that are listed should be linked to those outcomes. We’ve found it helpful to define strategic and other planning so that readers of the plan understand what strategic planning is.

We use the following for describing the different planning horizon IT is involved in.

Operational planning covers the shortest time frame. This covers tasks and activities that occur in a one- to four-week planning horizon. For example, the addition of a small number of wireless access points to augment an existing network would fit into this horizon.

Tactical planning includes projects and initiatives anticipated in the one- to 12-month timeframe.

Strategic planning is the systematic process of evaluating the organisation’s current state, determining its desired future and translating this into broadly defined objectives and a sequence of steps to achieve them.

Step 2 - What does the business want?

Any IT strategy that is developed in isolation of the business is doomed to be an unread document.

Start with a look at your company’s organisational chart and meet with the heads of each department. Sell the plan to them by engaging them in the process and making them part of the review process. This will help the strategy remain a business-focused IT plan and not a set of technical specifications.

This engagement will give you a clear set of business objectives and an understanding of what all of the business’s major stakeholders expect from the IT department. This is a critical building block for your plan.

Step 3 - From requirements to plan

Armed with the information you learned from your engagement with key business stakeholders, you can start looking at how to fulfil their needs. However, for that to start, you need an understanding of where you are today.

Conduct a SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunity and threats) analysis and put it in the plan. Also, survey current technology trends. Although you will have a solid understanding of what you’re doing, there’s a lot going on in the world and knowing what research is going on and what standards are evolving will help you prepare for potential changes. That doesn’t mean you’ll get it right but at least you’ll have a better picture of what might be coming.

Your internal analysis and the upcoming needs of the business will allow you to conduct an old-fashioned gap analysis. Look at the current position, compare it to the preferred future state and create a path between the two.

Provide enough clarity that you have a plan with information such as project titles, approximate timelines and an indication of project size but you don’t want to lock yourself into specifics. You’re delivering a strategy - not a detailed tactical plan. The deeper detail will come later.

Step 4 - Financing the plan

Every IT strategy needs to be supported with a financial plan.

Finance will want a plan that separates capital and operational expenditure and keeps annual spending either even or slightly reducing. However, you’ll need to manage their expectations. If you’re forecasting your expenditure out for five years, there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty, particularly as you try to plan further into the future.

We’d suggest not making the financial information part of the plan but just an attachment or appendix.

Create a potential project list for the planning horizon and get some indicative costing for the projects. The idea isn’t to conduct detailed budgeting but to inform the business that there will be a cost in order to deliver IT that supports the broader business’s goals.

Step 5 - Other bits and pieces

There’s no pro-forma template for an IT strategic plan. Hopefully, we’ve pointed out the building blocks that you need when you have to embark on this journey.

We’d advise to have a section in your plan that covers staffing in the IT department. It will become apparent, as you develop your plan, whether your current structure and skills will support the business goals of the plan. A departmental staffing and skills plan will highlight to the business that you have not only considered what is needed but how it will be achieved.

Make sure that the plan is written in business language. It’s tempting to see the IT strategy as a technical document but it’s not. It’s a business document. Your tactical and operational plans will cover the technical detail.

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