How do I get the board to define a strategy?

I know we need to align our IT strategy with the firm's business strategy, but my department has great difficulty obtaining a...

I know we need to align our IT strategy with the firm's business strategy, but my department has great difficulty obtaining a definition of the strategy from the board. How can we persuade the board to provide a suitable response?

IT strategy should integrate with the financial strategy

Chris Potts, Dominic Barrow

Companies pursue a number of business strategies in parallel, which are all interrelated, but are never going to be 100% aligned.

No strategy can be certain of the future, as no one really knows what is going to happen. Tactics will be based on analysis, assumptions and scenarios and will constantly be adjusted in the light of events.

Your IT strategy will only be successful if it is integrated with and driven by other business strategies, as IT on its own delivers no value. It must inherit the same uncertainties, assumptions and scenarios and help to implement the latest tactics.

The easiest way to achieve this, which will also be meaningful to the board, is through the IT finances. If the various business strategies and executives responsible for its success are driving IT spending and exploitation, you are bound to be aligned with them. The final piece of the jigsaw is to exploit corporate IT management to maximise total value-for-money across the strategic "bigger picture".

Give the board a view and listen to the response

Chris Edwards, Cranfield School of Management

For the past 10 years academics and consultants have been obsessed with aligning the IT strategy with the business strategy. The logic underpinning the need for this is quite clear, but the fatal flaw - as reported to me by IT directors - is that the business strategy is often not so clear.

I use two methods to try to understand the direction for a business and I use the first even if the business strategy is said to be clear. I am working from an assumption that directors have a direction for a business but, for one reason or another, do not share this with other senior members of their organisations. My experience suggests that directors do, in overview terms, have such direction but do not have complete supporting details.

First, identify five important "directions" from people not on the board. They should have sufficient seniority to understand the matters being pursued in the organisation. Distil these into a list, crafting similar ideas so that they are expressed in dissimilar words. Present these to the board as a view of observed strategic behaviour and let members explain why you misunderstand. The explanation will provide valuable insights into the intended business strategy.

Second, create a "straw man" business strategy containing aspects you believe to be true and others you believe to be more contentious. In a facilitated discussion forum, have them rank their personal strength of feeling about each item. The displayed individual rankings could then form the basis of the discussion. You will find the outcome full of insights.

Do not even bother to ask about the business strategy: give them a view and carefully listen to the response.

Ask for personal meetings and business plans

Roger Marshall, Elite

I am reminded of the saying, "If you do not know where you are going, then any direction will do." If your company is really so inept that the business strategy cannot be articulated, my advice is to find another job, as it will probably fail anyway.

Being more positive, maybe the board does not recognise the word strategy, which is a rather vague concept at the best of times, and will be happier to talk to you about its business plans. If that still gives members trouble, you could try inviting yourself to a board meeting to give them a presentation on what they should be doing and why it is important for you to be given some sense of direction.

Other aspects of this question are also worrying. You refer to "the board" as if it sits in some remote ivory tower. The board is made up of directors, each of whom has his or her problems and priorities, even if they cannot speak collectively. So why not try having personal meetings with them and try to address their problems directly.

This is no substitute for an overall strategy, but you have the benefit of being able to build relationships and show you care. Having done this, you may be in a better position than anyone else to save the company by suggesting a way forward.

Formulate an IT strategy and the board will follow

Anthony Harrison, NCC Global

Many organisations are so busy meeting demands that they do not have a clear business strategy. Under these circumstances, the development of an IT strategy can help the board think about its goals and how they will be achieved - which are the two components of any business strategy.

There are two dimensions to the IT strategy: external - centred around applications; and internal - centred around infrastructure, processes and people. Given competent IT managers dealing with the internal dimension, the board should be concerned most with the external dimension.

Sit down with the board, the organisation's senior managers, and some of its customers. Understand what these stakeholders want from IT and how the current applications portfolio supports these needs. Within a short time you will have the basis of an IT development and investment plan linked to company goals and customer needs.

Having delivered your side of the bargain, ask the board and senior managers to build on this work and formalise the organisation's business strategy.

Ask structured questions on the future business model

Gill Williams, Information security practice, Ernst & Young

The alignment of IT strategy to business strategy is an admirable and essential pursuit. One would hope this would be an executive-level objective, especially considering the increased focus on corporate governance, cost control (return on investment) and increased connectivity with suppliers and customers - all of which are underpinned and supported by IT.

Research shows that many organisations have no business strategy, and even the ones that do find they often fail to deliver the future focus required by IT.

However, with a pragmatic focus on the core inputs to an IT strategy it is possible to extract or imply a strategic "direction". Most executives will be able to express a view on the geographic reach, and therefore IT reach, of their organisations. Structured questions on the future business model - for example, about mergers, acquisitions, connectivity with customers and suppliers, or whether business transformation is on the agenda - will provide a clear view of the IT alignment opportunities.

The strategy is there, it is just a case of knowing where to look.

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