IT directors: Build the pillars to success

John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you are making other plans". By the same token, it might also be said that IT is what happens while you are...

John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens while you are making other plans". By the same token, it might also be said that IT is what happens while you are drafting a corporate strategy.

At last week's IT Director's Forum at the Cranfield School of Management, Professor Chris Edwards exhorted IT chiefs to develop a post-Y2K information strategy that amounts to more than mere knee-jerk reaction to external pressures upon the department.

In today's corporate value enabling chain, said Edwards, it is currently the business that formulates strategy and specifies change. As for the IT department, it is in reality only responsible for designing, building and supplying the systems which facilitate this change.

Focusing on improving one link in the corporate value chain is, warned Edwards, like "squeezing a balloon". Instead, he pinpointed four "pillars" that underpin the chain, and argued that only by working on improving these could IT directors hope to graduate from application builders to benefit deliverers.

The first pillar is the ability to create and configure your corporate information resource. Cranfield's Rob Lambert challenged directors to view the work of their departments in the wider context of the business strategy and the processes underpinning it.

If their departments are to deliver fully, IT directors must assess their role in business-wide strategy formulation, Lambert said. Moreover, they should consider taking some responsibility for "fleshing out and articulating in detail what the processes are" that will deliver this strategy.

Lambert revisited the classic "time/cost/quality" triangle, and asserted that "benefit" should replace "quality". "If you are benefit-focused", he said, "it makes a difference to the way you are building applications."

An IT department that is conversant with its overarching corporate strategy will be able to create the applications to support it and deliver tangible benefits.

Alarmingly, in an "organisational information competencies" exercise delegates revealed they are at best barely adequate at benefits management.

And while they scored high in what Lambert called "classic IT-land" fields such as applications development, they were woefully lacking in the competency of strategic formulation.

Edwards returned to explore the second "pillar" for success, that of consistent information governance. Your information governance structure needs to be as streamlined as possible, said Edwards.

By ripping apart and then rationalising current IT decision-making processes, he said, you should then be able to draft an information constitution. These rules should be generic, not specific.

For instance, while writing a process for prioritising applications into the constitution is valid, including a list of prioritised applications is not.

The third "pillar" to success was the establishment of an appropriate relationship with the business. Senior research fellow, Joe Peppard, went beyond the usual exhortations to IT directors to align with its internal customers, by suggesting they should look to "fuse business and IT knowledge and actions".

Peppard said the root cause of the uncertain relationship between IT and the business lay in "having an IS function in the first place". By seeking to create not a value-added IS function but rather added value though IS, he said, we can re-frame IT strategy as a subset of corporate strategy.

Key to achieving the objective of fusing with the business, said Peppard, was the issue of service quality.

He said the IT department must learn consistently to offer reliability, responsiveness, assurance and empathy, if it is to bridge the gap that currently exists.

Edwards outlined the final pillar to success, the ability to manage significant ongoing change. He advocated the establishment of a separate business "brain" or design agency which can act as both a corporate information bank, and filter for change processes.

Your information constitution should have

  • Objectives and purposes of the constitution

  • Principles guiding information decisions

  • Extent of what is being governed

  • Roles of individuals

  • Roles of governing bodies:

    • membership of these bodies

    • meetings of these bodies

    • reports of these bodies

    • relationships with other bodies
  • Financial responsibilities

  • Reviews and amendments to the constitution
  • Read more on IT risk management