Idiocy of a Long Range IT Strategic Plan

Johnny Carson doing Carnac the MagnificentGiven the dynamic nature of technology and business strategy, a long range IT strategic plan is a sure sign the CIO might be an idiot. Idiocy is a strong word but it is needed to help stop CIO’s from producing a strategic plan that company executives know is fiction. A long range IT strategic plan only undermines CIO credibility by bringing into question their general business sense thereby further limiting the CIO’s ability to play a strategic role in the company.

IT Strategic Plan by Carnac 

Ask any IT leader where they want to be in three years and most can’t tell you what will happen next week let alone in three years. Yet, when forced into strategic planning they somehow develop mystical powers to see into to the future with clarity and certainty on business strategy and technology advancement. Perhaps that might explain why about every two weeks or so I see a college CIO publish a 5-year IT strategy.

If you ever watched Johnny doing Carnac the Magnificent you’d know his insights were always a little askew. So too are the projections on IT trends many CIO’s rely on in developing their strategic plan. That’s why it is useful to look back at some of the IT trends predicted in 2008 if you are a 3-year planner, or 2006 if you use 5-year plans.

The CIO Insight’s 2008 Trends includes predictions of strong foreign economies and no downturn in the role of the CIO. Then compare those trends to their Top CIO Priorities for 2009 and you’ll get the point. Those readers in Higher Ed can do the same using EDUCAUSE or almost any other source.

Business Strategy is Near Term

The typical approach in creating an IT strategic plan is based on the IT strategy being born out of the business strategy. If you accept the strategic planning model I’ve offered, then the IT strategic plan is driven directly by the business strategy. But because the certainty of any business strategy fades the farther out the projection goes, so too would the company strategic plan.

Most companies can’t see much more than 2 years ahead with any certainty which would limit the ability to formulate an IT strategy that is any longer than that without a significant decline in confidence. Perhaps you might have an IT strategy where year 1 is 90% certain and year 2 is 70% certain. But by year 3 and beyond your confidence level has to decline considerably to 50/50 or worse.

CIO’s also have to account for the timing of the strategic planning cycle and where the IT strategy fits into the timeline. If it takes a company or college 6 months to complete their strategic planning and the IT strategy get’s done  early in the timeline, a 3 year strategic plan is really more like a 4 year projection when you look at when it is formulated to when it is funded and can begin. So those CIO’s creating 5 year strategic plans are really offering a 6 year forecast.

Final Thoughts

An IT strategic plan covering more than 5 years is just not realistic and should be seen as a warning sign of the CIO’s capability. If your strategic plan offers any details for year 3 or beyond of any significance you may have wasted your energy and lowered your credibility.

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4 Responses to Idiocy of a Long Range IT Strategic Plan

  1. Gordon Rae says:

    If you think a long-range IT strategic plan is an idiotic idea, I wonder whether you think any kind of long-range plan is a bad idea, or just IT? And what should a CIO do to produce a plan that is both useful, and communicable to other divisions in the organization.

    Remember that planning is about exercising stewardship over equipment, people and money, and IT is about providing infrastructure and service to the business. You won’t know with perfect foresight what’s going to be available in five years time, but you do have a good handle on what you own, what it costs you to operate it, and how quickly it’s going to wear out. And by talking to other C-Level execs, you can form of an idea of how their demands for services are like to change.

    The purpose of your strategy is not to eliminate uncertainty, but to have sensible conversations with your colleagues, your team, and your suppliers that serve the business than a shrug of the shoulders.

  2. The Higher Ed CIO says:

    Gordon, I am intrigued by your comments and do appreciate you having taken the time to share your thoughts.

    Planning is important and necessary for both tactical operations and strategy. I tend to argue the tactical side is more important because it is about execution whereas strategy is about intent and is subject to a degree of fluidity. This is where the idea of execution beats strategy comes from. The farther out you go in planning the more it needs to shift to guiding principles for a general directionality. A trajectory more than specifics that are too uncertain.

    When it comes to strategy though I do like to remind people that most strategic plans fail, according to top executives. That’s the fallacy of planning I have written about before.

    The stewardship you refer to, and the necessity to manage your assets inventory for cost and refresh are tactical activities. I call that maintenance and almost always not strategic to the business. This is core to why so many IT strategic plans and technology plans fail. They focus on the technology and its lifecycle not on the business benefits that are linked to the business strategy like growing where creating shareholder wealth is usually #1 followed by growing revenue and so on.

    Sensible conversations and clarity are one thing, but if they don’t move the needle on what matters, than can we conclude they don’t matter? Results over intent.

  3. Allan Aitchison says:

    I think Gordon has it right. Planning is important although for the purposes of this disussion there are two types of plan. One is fully understood, designed to perform finite action and there is a second that helps to inform all the other plans and will by its very nature be imprecise (as it plans further out), and will be replanned regularly (and so may change). Without this second type of plan there would be no strategy to align projects towards an end goal. In my personal experience this second kind of planning is worth the cost as it gets agreement from disparate stakeholders and aligns the IT organisation with the business strategy (which are drivers of these plans).

  4. The Higher Ed CIO says:

    Spot on Allan. Sometimes my terminology doesn’t always jive with what other use so I am glad enough of it is making the translation. The finite action planning I think of as tactical planning or operational planning. That which informs all others is what I call strategic planning.

    I like the way you and Gordon put it and would like to adopt your terminology.

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