IT planning is broken, fix it

Thornton May laments the state of IT planning today, but he has a plan of his own.


IT planning is broken. From the research I have participated in and the conversations I've had with people in the field, I can say that this is unambiguously true. The question is, should we care? Or is IT planning a quaint relic of a bygone era?

Thirty years ago, when I first entered the world of information technology, IT planning was all the rage. It appeared front and centre on the pages of The Harvard Business Review. (See: Cyrus F. Gibson and Richard L. Nolan, "Managing the Four Stages of EDP Growth," Harvard Business Review [January-February 1974].) It was the topic at all the industry gatherings, and it was probably the defining skill that IT leaders had to master.

But the years have not been kind to this discipline. In 2010, only 40% of the organisations in the Global 2000 have prepared a pictorial description of where IT is going, a one page diagram that says, "We are here and are heading there." That means that 60% of the world's IT shops are essentially working without a map. And as I recently noted, the IT planning horizon at most IT shops does not exceed 18 months. Abysmally, the business community in approximately 75% of the organisations queried by the IT Leadership Academy does not feel that IT planning is effective.

In a sense, traditional IT planning, the laborious, time consuming, top down "mission, vision, strategy, goals" juggernaut that still appears in many MBA textbooks, is no longer viable because everything today moves too fast for that sort of thing. There just isn't time. There is an overwhelming sense that organisations involved in such exercises are wasting their time and worse, eroding good will with the business community.

But the fact is that without an effective and respected IT planning process, IT professionals are doomed to play a physically and psychologically exhausting game of whack-a-mole that they can't win because they are forever trying to catch up with ever increasing business unit demands.

Working with HP and Avnet, we at the IT Leadership Academy queried IT workers in over 40 cities, who agreed that the IT planning process is broken, about how to fix IT planning, paying particular attention to the challenges of planning for a converged infrastructure. We specifically asked, "What is wrong?" and "What ingredients must be in a respected IT plan?" Here are the insights that emerged from that discussion.

The ultimate objective of any IT planning process is to establish clear objectives for the IT organisation that link directly back to the enterprise's strategic business goals. With this linkage, the IT organisation can craft practicable execution plans and credible financial forecasts.

The first step toward developing a respected IT planning process is to have an intimate and thorough understanding of the business strategy. This is where many organizations go off the rails, simply because they do not have a clearly articulated business strategy.

Best practice IT organisations time-box their analysis of business strategy. For a five-to-10-year time frame, consumer, technological and demographic trends are hypothesized. In workshops with the business, the IT planning team identifies approximately 10 internal and 10 external macro trends. These macro trends create context for a series of in-their-office interviews with key business unit leaders. The aim of these conversations is to identify 200 or more potential business objectives. In another workshop, those business objectives are filtered down to a "semi-official" list of 40.

These become the basis of the IT plan. And it can work even in a world where everything is moving too fast. Total elapsed time of this process: nine weeks.

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