Brian Benn, Board Of Directors, Technology Association of Georgia/ Southeastern Software Association and Director, IT Business Solutions, Atlanta Housing Authority
Information technology (IT) leaders must be thought leaders and visionaries who are an integral part of the strategic planning of the organization’s use of technology. The high-level engagement of IT leadership can increase profitability for the entire organization rather than the IT practice being relegated to the traditional role as merely a keeper of the organization’s information systems. Far too often, IT leaders work in organizations that do not have a clearly articulated strategic plan for the business itself, let alone information technology. One main purpose of the IT strategic plan is to improve the relationship between the business and the IT department. Information technology leadership will use the strategic plan to communicate with the business, ensuring the business that IT understands the company's needs and expectations. If the organization is lacking a strategic business plan, the IT leader must lobby for one. The overarching strategic business plan will anchor the strategic IT plan. Both are integral to the success of the organization.
A sound strategic plan is continuous, detailed, defined, and used in organizations of all types to critically and creatively assess where the organization is now, define where the organization wants to be in the future, and develop comprehensive strategies to move the organization in a desired direction. Even when organizations understand the need for strategic planning and visioning, do they fully understand why IT must be a part of this initiative? Strategic planning involves the coming together of key players of an organization to determine the future while examining the past and present. Productive employment of information technology can lead to cost reduction, maximization of profits, improvement in efficiencies, and streamlined operations. For this reason, IT leadership must be a part of the planning process. In a November 2012 study conducted at Iowa State University, College of Business, researchers examined the effects of strategic IT leadership on organizational outcomes from the perspective of CIO strategic roles. Data was collected from 110 matched pairs of CIOs and business executives and results demonstrated that the input of IT leadership with respect to the strategic direction of an organization significantly increased the organizational benefits (Ding, Li, & George, 2014). Strategic planning requires a keen understanding of multiple disciplines within the organization and a union of these disciplines, if not for complete agreement, at least consensus.
While strategic planning and visioning may have complementary components, they are different. The strategic plan generally details the ‘how’ while the visioning focuses more on the ‘what’ from a higher level.
One main purpose of the IT strategic plan is to improve the relationship between the business and the IT department
Visioning is a creative, collaborative process that asks an organization to articulate a preferred future. Visioning, if done effectively, will clearly articulate what the organization will be focusing on and the corresponding timelines. A vision statement is the product of a well-developed visioning process and clearly defines the future. The most effective vision statements are the ones that create a narrative of the future based on a new reality. These vision statements will be both bold and inspirational while being believable and achievable. The strategic plan details how to move from the present state to the desired future state articulated by the visioning process. The value of IT being a part of the strategic planning and visioning processes will only increase in an age where technology is rapidly increasing and is inextricably tied to the success of organizations. Information technology leaders traditionally reported to the Chief Operating Officer (COO) or the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). As IT plays an increasingly more important role in businesses today, the role of IT leadership, and even more specifically, the Chief Information Officer (CIO), has also become more significant. Some CIOs are assuming the roles of business strategists, process improvement leaders, and innovators. As a result, IT leaders are becoming executive-level leaders as opposed to merely service providers. The dynamic was not always this way.
The original role of the IT leader in the 1950s and 1960s was more of a data processing manager that, by the 1970s, had evolved into a keeper of the organization’s information systems. In the 1980s, as the capability of technology increased, the role gradually grew into that of an executive afforded the opportunity to utilize information technology from a more holistic standpoint— socially, economically, and strategically.
The function of the IT leadership continued to evolve in the 1990s and IT leaders began to focus on fostering and managing executive relationships and promoting the value of information technology to the entire organization.
One major catalyst for this progression was the Y2K initiative. Information technology was brought to the forefront in the 1990s when executive teams were reviewing their companies' progress toward Y2K compliance. The development, enhancement, and conversion of the IT hardware and software to ensure Y2K compliance provided a challenge and an opportunity to demonstrate the true value that IT brought to the table. When January 1, 2000 rolled around and the clocks were reset, the newly updated software and hardware were rolled out and there was a collective sigh of relief. As a result of the high stakes and potential ramifications associated with the Y2K effort, the IT initiatives, which may have under any other circumstance been met with resistance, were supported. As IT departments across the globe helped their respective organizations successfully usher in the year 2000, they garnered credibility and respect typically afforded other departments.
The success of the Y2K effort along with the introduction of massive IT infrastructure investments such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, E-Commerce, and Big Data of the 2000s prompted more of a business dependence on IT—both operationally and strategically. Executive teams have traditionally experienced a high degree of discomfort in these discussions that are so dependent on a high IT acumen. Consequently, the functional IT head has often been on the 'hot seat' to address persistent concerns regarding the organization's ability to identify opportunities presented by new technologies, respond to those opportunities in a timely fashion, and achieve demonstrable benefits from IT investments. The best and most effective IT leaders have already responded. These leaders understand the tactical advantage of proactively harnessing the ever-increasing capabilities of information technology to maximize the productivity and profitability of their respective organizations.