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One of the toughest challenges facing IT executives is how to plan for technology that hasn't been invented yet. Companies generally stress the need for IT to think more like a business, which means crafting long-term strategic plans demonstrating how, say, IT will positively benefit the company in 2011. The gotcha is that engineers can't always know what products and services will be available in 2011 - much less how they'll affect the company.

But as Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favours the prepared mind." In other words, although no one can predict the future with 100 per cent accuracy, doing some upfront homework will help IT execs stay on top of what's coming down the pike, and how it can help their organisations. In particular, it's a good idea to spend some time thinking about user and organizational requirements, and to stay abreast of emerging technologies. Here are some practical tips for doing so:

  • Know what your users require. This sounds like a complete no-brainer, but it's not. Most IT folks think in terms of what users require from them. In other words, your average IT person will tell you that users require things such as email, Windows desktops or access to accounting software. That's the wrong approach, because you're defining needs in terms of today's technologies. Instead, try asking yourself (and your users) what they actually do for a living.

You'll find the answers fall into broad categories, such as communicate interactively, share documents and such. Most users rely on e-mail for both interactive communication and document-sharing - but it's increasingly a suboptimal tool for both. Many times instant messaging can replace the need for quick interactive communication, and technologies such as peer-to-peer document sharing, wikis or databases can provide better solutions. And if you know that, for example, your users really require interactive communication that lets them read body language, you'll be ready to pounce on that next-generation telepresence system when it's low-cost enough for your budget.

  • Know what your organisations require. Many moons ago I made the point (using Alexander the Great's deployment of the sarissa) that what organisations require isn't necessarily the same as what users require. That continues to be true. Just as your average Greek soldier didn't feel he needed to carry around a heavy 16-foot pike, your average user might not feel a compelling desire for, say, biometric security - but the organisation might.
  • Stay abreast of emerging technology. This also sounds like a no-brainer, and it can be. We geeks love hearing about the latest and greatest tech toys, almost as much as we love playing with them. The trick is to evaluate new technology in light of the above two criteria. Instead of asking ourselves, "Gee, how could I use this?" we need to be thinking in terms of how, say, an on-site salesperson who needs one-button access to interactive communication could use it.

The bottom line? Pasteur was right: Preparation is key.