Call that an IT strategy?

I've been an IT COO in several investment banks during my 14 years in the City and I want to examine the concept of an IT strategy, or more importantly, the lack of a real one.

This isn't a criticism of the banks - they simply don't need one in the traditional sense. The word comes from ancient Greek "stratos" meaning army and "ago" meaning leading. This conjures up a sense of a war, overcoming the bad guys and winning.

True it may sometimes feel like war in a modern IT department, but a strategy is all about how you're going to do something and not what you're going to do.

The goal should be obvious: win the war. To do that involves deploying your assets around the battlefield at the right time and getting them to do what you want, without question.

For me, this needs a strong command and control management style which has been greatly eroded in the western commercial world in recent years. Everything seems to be managed by debate, collective opinion or steering committee. Worthy communal approaches, but they don't have the power of a benevolent dictatorship in these tough economic times.

And I know this first-hand because I've produced several IT budgets and "strategies" over the years. To its credit, one bank did start calling it a business plan rather than a strategy so we could just talk about what we were going to do rather than how.

It sounds less impressive, but worked very well. A large IT division in a complex global bank has three main objectives each year: keep the lights on, do some projects and stay in budget.

Obscure budget

The "IT Strategy" then becomes a PowerPoint presentation based loosely on some of the less obscure bits of the budget. Not very exciting on the whole, but it serves a purpose.

IT can wave it around and tell the rest of the firm a strategy is in place, usually safe in the assumption that nobody in the business will pay much attention as long as the lights stay on, projects get done and the budget's OK.

But I don't think this is a problem because generally it's all that's needed - a better description might be an "IT evolving state of affairs".

By contrast, firms such as Intel, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo and many others have very strong, almost single-minded goals and strategies, some of which are notorious. You may remember several of these techniques making their way through the US courts over the years as people took offence at the strategies being unleashed on each other to gain competitive advantage.

In the context of a bank, a pure IT strategy to gain organisational competitive advantage might involve something like digging up the high street and chopping through the dark fibre serving another bank.

Not a great plan if you get caught, but certainly effective. And sadly it does happen by accident as a result of roadworks which is why the banks have multiple diverse lines between key locations, so you would have to dig up a couple of other high streets at the same time.

Somebody else's strategy

So IT in a bank forms part of somebody else's strategy. The front office is conducting the war and IT is one of their assets to be deployed on the battlefield and make something work better, cheaper or across a wider geographic area.

And that's my point - when IT is your business you absolutely need a brutal IT strategy to drive the firm forwards and outwit your competitors, but when IT is supporting a bank, it just needs to be given clear direction and respond with a credible business plan.

So next time you see a document with "IT strategy" written on the front, you'll be able to see through it and work out if you're actually looking at an "IT stratanotegy", derived from the modern English words 'not', 'a' and 'strategy'.

James Martin has been working in global financial services management covering investment banking, retail banking and management consulting since 1994. He was IT COO (twice) at Lehman Brothers, and worked there for eight years. He has also worked for Lloyds TSB, Standard Chartered, Coopers & Lybrand, ING Barings, Credit Suisse First Boston, and Sutherland Consulting.

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This was first published in January 2009

 

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