If you are like me, you read lots of articles. These are often about IT strategies, technologies and industry developments. They are authored by a variety of individuals representing consulting companies, industry organizations, publishers, and often, IT vendors. This week I chose an article from an IT vendor who sells software (and services) that helps an IT department get a better handle on the various management aspects of running an infrastructure environment.
Now you might be thinking: “wait, you have to take an article written by a vendor with a grain of salt. After all, they are going to try and sell you on what they have to offer, right?” This might be true, but I believe this week’s featured article does a pretty good job of focusing on pertinent issues and relaying some expertise this company has amassed across its many client engagements. The title really caught my eye: “Why IT Strategy is Dead.” As a career IT professional, it made me angry! How can anyone make such a statement? Of course IT strategy is NOT dead! I had to read the article to find out what basis the author had for making such an outlandish statement.
So their trick worked: I read the article.
Overall, the article is a very good read and I am in agreement with many of the perspectives it offers. I will comment on some of these perspectives and add my own thoughts and comments where I might be inclined to draw a different conclusion. I want to start by sharing my perspective on IT strategy. I’ll follow that with my comments on the article, and then I will close with a final thought.
IT strategy is not dead
In the introduction to the article, the author states what I also believe to be true: alignment between the business and IT is essential and there is growing awareness and acceptance of this. Quoting from the article: “If IT leaders are going to change this perception [that IT is an internal service] they must become essential to business success.” I couldn’t agree more…so far. But then the article takes a left turn: “…and that starts with the recognition that IT strategy is no longer relevant.” My pinball meter just went tilt: IT strategy may be many things, but irrelevant isn’t one of them.
For Monty Python fans, think of that wagon puller calling “bring out your dead” and the body on top of the bodies on the wagon claiming “I’m not dead yet!” In fact, IT strategy has evolved over recent years (in a very good way) to be better-linked with business strategy. IT strategy used to be mostly about how to meet expected IT capacity demands in an efficient and reliable fashion. While this continues to be important, today’s IT strategies also focus on how to enable new business capabilities as well as provide the capacity to meet existing demand and new opportunities. Stated differently, IT strategy has gone from mostly a back office function to including the front office as well. CIOs have evolved from being cost center managers to being business leaders, sitting at the table with their business leadership peers and championing the creative use of technology to drive competitive advantage.
Our subject article takes the position that as this has happened, the two once-separate strategies (IT and business) are now one and the same and, therefore, IT strategy is dead. I think this is a flawed conclusion. Both are still needed, but they are more synergistically linked today than ever. An IT strategy provides vital, unique-to-IT analysis in support of business strategy. Business strategy, of course, requires its own focus. “IT as usual” is no longer an option Our article suggests agile software development as a response by IT departments who recognize this “expanded focus” on customer satisfaction and the loyalty it drives. I think however the principle driver for agile methods is what the article says next: “The speed of business continues to accelerate.” It turns out that just doing the same things faster or reducing the time to deliver a customer-delighting experience is not something that allows you to execute old techniques in shorter time segments. At some point a discontinuity occurs and you need a new approach for dealing with this new reality.
As stated earlier, technology has had a hand in enabling this acceleration, lowering barriers to entry and blurring traditional industry segments. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a real threat or real opportunity. Think of the companies today that command large market share. Many of them use technology to dis-intermediate or disrupt traditional businesses by weaponizing time to market or applying agile principles to more than software development.
Business strategy drives all “As a corporate department, IT simply cannot adjust quickly enough” and this is because of “commitments they have made to infrastructure, service contracts, platform upgrades.” This speaks to the old style IT department that operated necessary functions as a cost center. I believe there are very few of these old school IT departments left. Gartner coined the expression “bimodal IT” (in recognition that IT departments must do both predictable work and innovative work - essentially keeping the lights on while driving the technology innovation agenda in support of the business). McKinsey also talks about “two-speed IT.” I believe these views more accurately reflect the challenge and the strategic response by today’s leading IT departments.
Business / IT strategy integration “That model [old style IT] becomes more obsolete every month, and IT must evolve from an execution focus to an intelligence focus.” Everything said before this statement was bang on. Here again, however, in my opinion, the conclusion is flawed. It’s not that one strategy gives way to the other. It’s that both must be done in parallel. I can’t imagine a CIO lasting very long at the leadership table when he or she responds: “we don’t do that kind of strategy anymore” when operations has a service outage that affects the business. Execution focus remains strategic.
“Business leaders simply do not have enough insight and awareness of technology” and “success requires IT leaders to understand enough about the business they serve to provide context and to inform and guide the decision-making process.” This could not be stated better. But the article continues to push for a single unified strategy. This should not be the conclusion drawn from the previous statements. The question might better be whether or not strategy should be layered or monolithic. For simple strategy work, I see the merit in the latter. For enterprise level strategy work, I favor a layered approach given the need for many different skills and disciplines across many different people in the organization.
The bottom line “Integrated strategies cannot be developed without integrated leadership.” It seems the author has finally convinced himself that there is more than one strategy and that they must be integrated. Perhaps I am coming across a little critical of this article and its author. Let me say it this way: there are some great observations being made throughout the article and I agree with many of them. Some of the conclusions the authors draw would not be different from my own. Maybe these were necessary to support a tag line or agenda this vendor has in its marketing. The article is definitely worth a read and, from my background, I know this vendor has a lot to offer an organization looking to be more responsive and agile.
And, remember my usual bottom line: you have to pick out the good stuff in articles like this and not become distracted by other stuff that seems to be a stretch.