Strategy Clinic: How can I curb board's blue-sky fantasies?

Board members keep coming to me with ideas for systems and technologies they have seen in the media. I feel they think I am being...

Board members keep coming to me with ideas for systems and technologies they have seen in the media. I feel they think I am being undynamic when I point out why they would be inappropriate. How can I explain that these "blue-sky" articles are better described as "pie in the sky"?

Try to establish a fund for assessing blue-sky IT

It would be better to face this head-on in a positive way rather than sounding like the person standing in the way of progress.

If these approaches are coming from board members then why not produce a report for the board which says that there are a number of technologies which have promise for the company, mentioning those which have featured in recent requests, for which you need evaluation funding?

The report could propose a "blue sky" fund from which such evaluations will be paid for. It could also propose a board-level committee to oversee the fund.

If the board refuses your proposal you will be able to explain to directors that you have tried to get the board interested in innovation but have been rebuffed. Eventually they should agree and you can use the fund to finance some blue-sky work of your own.

Roger Marshall BCS Elite

Always take a strategic view of new technologies

The prime concern of a board member should be strong governance and return on investment. This means taking a strategic view of IT investment and how it fits in to the goals of the business. History tells us that rash investments without a robust business case often result in failure.

Another consideration is the culture of your business. Do you want to be "first to market" or do you prefer to watch others and learn from their mistakes and successes?

There are many occasions when the IT department will push for the latest technology and the board will challenge it, demanding that the business benefit be demonstrated before any investment is made.

IT is complex in terms of support and integration with other systems, future proofing and benefits realisation. Before any investment is made, you need to determine the following:

  • Will the technology work?
  • Do we need it (will it enable us win more customers, reduce our processing costs, improve our service)?
  • How much will it really cost (include support, maintenance and integration costs)?
  • Does it fit in with current infrastructure/systems strategy?
  • Are the benefits understood?
  • Is their a realisation strategy?
  • Are the risks understood and can they be mitigated?

The lessons from the dotcom boom and subsequent crash are that if you consider the above points and get them right, chances of success are improved, but not considering them can be catastrophic.

It is good your board is enthusiastic about IT, but you need to demonstrate enthusiasm, and try and move them into considering the investment criteria to understand the return.

Roger Rawlinson NCC Group

Be careful you do not dismiss ideas out of hand

This is almost certainly not the way to handle such issues. When talking to members of your board I would recommend you assiduously avoid any reference to "pie in the sky".

Your problem is not new. News reports often put an exciting spin on new technologies. Hopefully your biggest asset is a reliable, acceptably costed service which meets the company's needs.

The full integration of every piece of hardware and software is important and not to be fiddled with lightly. However, you probably have some resource for looking at new opportunities, and an agreement to take an overview of new suggestions, particularly when it comes from senior management who no doubt approve your budget.

Have a few analogies ready if you are accused of not being dynamic enough. For example, delivering small parts using a Ferrari may be faster than using a Transit, but that it is not really a proposition.

Consider the board members. In the functions they are responsible for, they too must be presented with a lot of innovations and opportunities: how do they tackle these?

It is worth remembering that among 100 time-wasting ideas, there may be one jewel of an idea. I had a colleague who gushed forth so many off-the-wall ideas that people just stopped listening to him, only to realise, often too late, that something he had mentioned was pure genius.

So try to keep a pleasant smile on your face and keep your ears open. Bright ideas are not the preserve of your board alone. The worst scenario is if you did nothing in response to a suggestion but a competitor did and they got a whacking competitive advantage. Then the next suggestion you would probably get would be "how about looking for another job?".

Robin Laidlaw President, CW500 Club

Produce a quarterly report on IT market developments

Reverse the flow of information. On a quarterly basis, prepare a formal market-watch report, assessing developments in the IT market within the specific context of your company's strategies and operating plans.

Cover developments in IT, sourcing and management and highlight the opportunities for exploiting these developments to increase the return on investment and also any risks.

Supplement the report with a rapid-response evaluation of anything of real significance that crops up in the meantime. After a relatively short time, you will provide the board with a better context for evaluating the stories they read and the confidence that you, as a company, have your finger on the pulse.

Chris Potts Director, Dominic Barrow

Sell yourself as a business person with IT expertise

You are in a fortunate position that board members are approaching you with these ideas. Your first opportunity is to talk to them about how these systems and technologies can lead to business improvements. By suspending disbelief, you will be seen as someone willing to exploit new technologies.

After the first stage of enthusiasm you then have the second opportunity - to position yourself as a business person with expertise in IT. Having defined the potential business improvement, you can then evaluate new technology against an existing technology. If an existing technology can do the job better and cheaper, this is clearly a strong argument and you can then challenge whether this business improvement offers a return on investment.

Finally, consider setting up a group to explore these emerging technologies. Given the strong interest from the board, this is an opportunity to be perceived as strategic and proactive.

Sharm Manwani Henley Management College

Talk to the board in a language they understand

As the arbiter of all things new in IT and what is essential to the business, you have a responsibility to be aware of what is out there and to have good, easily communicable reasons why it is or is not appropriate.

Some might think you fortunate that the board consults you. Start justifying their faith by appreciating their interest in all things new, spend some time on explanations they can understand in terms of cost, return on investment, risk and security, and don't be dismissive. You just might miss something.

Ollie Ross Head of researchThe Corporate IT Forum

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The experts
Computer Weekly has put together a panel of experts. You can draw on their specialist knowledge to solve a problem. E-mail your questions (or your own solution to this question) to [email protected]

NCC Group

Ernst & Young

Cranfield School of Management

Computer Weekly 500 Club

Henley Management College

British Computer Society

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The Corporate ITForum

Dominic Barrow

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