The end of the year is a common time for businesses to review progress and amend or create strategic plans. Following our recent article on IT budget planning, we wanted to share with you some best practices to follow when creating your business’ IT strategy. Specifically, we will cover:
- What is an IT strategy?
- Why do you need a formal strategic IT plan?
- Best practices for creating an effective strategic IT plan
- Our recommendations for your 2021 IT Strategic Plan
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Technology powers your business, but it can also hold it back. As your company grows, make sure your technology solutions can keep up and help you hit your goals. Don't be caught without a plan.
What is an IT Strategy?
An IT strategy is the deliberate plan to align a business’ technology initiatives with its organizational goals. It tells how the business will employ information technology (IT) to create value for the company and enable it to achieve its business objectives. It is a roadmap that delineates what technology initiatives will be undertaken in a timeframe to realize a defined benefit.
An IT business strategy should be considered a priority for all business leaders. This strategy should be documented and evolving, encompassing a 3 or 5 year span with at least annual review and updates. It is not a technical document, but a business plan for technology that defines the organization’s IT vision and corporate strategy.
The length and complexity of a strategic IT plan will vary according to an individual business’ needs and operations. However, in general they should cover:
- IT vision – how the business uses technology to advance business goals, e.g. automation, accessibility, performance, security
- IT processes – the procedures and systems in which IT systems and technical support is planned, managed, and carried out, e.g. support requests, lifecycle refresh, etc.
- IT resources – who/what assets the business relies on to carry out the business strategy, e.g. employees, Chief Information Officer (CIO), outsourcing to an IT service provider or IT team, software vendors, etc.
- IT infrastructure – network map, hardware, software, and systems upon which the business operates or needs to employ to meet both its long and short term strategic goals
Most importantly, a business’ IT strategy should always align with the organization’s strategic plans and goals. All initiatives within the IT plan should tie back to a business goal or need. This alignment should be clearly documented in the plan to facilitate future plan reviews and updates.
Why you need a formal strategic IT plan?
Some small businesses we run into initially think of IT as the tools they need to get work done. And they are right, to a point. However, IT is more than just a hammer or a saw. IT systems empower your business and directly impact productivity, efficiency, competitive advantage, and your bottom line.
It does not serve your business well to haphazardly deploy technology solutions throughout your business. In order to reap the benefits of the investment you make in IT, you must follow a well-thought out, documented IT strategy.
Deliberately crafting an IT strategy aligned with business needs and objectives enables you to:
- Track progress toward goals
- Manage resources efficiently
- Provide stable technology and in turn business performance
- Support end users better
- Prioritize investments and new initiatives
- Make decisions with confidence
The risk of not properly planning out an IT strategy leads to misalignment between the technology and business sides of the business. This means that everyone is not working toward a common goal or objective and can result in adverse consequences like:
- Decreased visibility in future IT needs and spending
- Investing in the wrong systems
- Frustration for end users
- Reactive troubleshooting
- Uncertainty in decision-making
- Harmfully impacting the customer experience
All of the above result in lost productivity and increased costs for the business. Furthermore, the lack of a deliberate and well-executed business IT strategy can alienate the two most important groups to any organization - your employees and your customers. If it is difficult to work for your business or to buy from it, your employees and clients will find other places, e.g. your competitors, in which to spend their efforts. In today’s modern world, technology permeates almost every aspect of a business, whether big or small.
A documented, formal IT strategy helps to avoid those pitfalls and benefit from the alignment, clarity, and visibility a strategic approach brings.
Best practices for creating an effective IT strategy
With an understanding of the what and why of a documented business IT strategy, we can now explore how to approach the strategic development process of an effective business IT strategy.
Although the five practices below may read as somewhat high level for your business, we encourage you to think about how to apply it to your business. The methods below are all designed to be scalable according to size, business models, or functions. It applies to a small business, as well as a mid-size or enterprise. It is relevant to a B2B, a B2C, a non-profit, etc. Although the scope may differ across organizations, the strategic development process remains universal.
1. Get the right people on the strategic planning team
An effective business IT strategy is not dictated by one person or even one IT department. To properly align the information technology strategy to the business requires a diverse representation of the various departments or business units that make up an organization. The team should include important stakeholders such as IT leaders, operations, finance, and human resources. Additional representation may include compliance officers, quality assurance, and others depending on the nature and size of the business.
What’s important is that IT strategic planning is approached as a collaborative and co-owned process that impacts the entire business, not simply your IT person or IT consultant. Every department has a stake in a business’ IT support, systems, and environment.
2. Identify, define, and document your strategic IT objectives
Start with reviewing the organization’s strategic business plan or defined strategic goals. This should provide the team with clarity on upcoming changes to business operations and intended organizational direction and goals. In addition to reviewing overall business goals, consider the following questions:
- What are the main obstacles to achieving these objectives?
- How can IT help overcome obstacles and achieve business goals?
This practice helps to ensure you define IT objectives that align with the business. Once you consider the business needs, create clear, specific, and measurable strategic IT objectives to support the organization. Do not be broad with your goals either! Including important markers of success such as metrics will help provide the business value for years to come. When setting an objective, be sure to tie it to a business goal and set a timeline for completion.
3. Evaluate your current IT environment
With a clear understanding of strategic objectives, it’s now time to assess the current state of your business’ technology landscape and your IT support needs. Identify any gaps or weaknesses and what is responsible for it, e.g. the technology itself, the business process, functionality for your team, or the people managing it. Some questions to address include:
- Are our existing systems appropriate to realize our organizational objectives?
- Do our processes ensure the optimal use of our existing systems?
- Does our existing technology appropriately support the needs of our users?
- Do we have a good understanding of our technology lifecycle and future equipment needs?
- How are we tracking technology performance?
- Do we have the expertise we need to ensure maximum utilization of current and future technology systems?
- Does the current state of our data and cybersecurity solutions appropriately reduce our risk?
Objectively reviewing the current state of your IT environment enables you to determine whether you are maximizing the use of current systems and identify areas of opportunity. Create a comprehensive list of potential IT opportunities for your business.
4. Vet IT opportunities and document strategic IT initiatives
Armed with your strategic IT objectives from step two and your list of potential IT opportunities stemming from your existing infrastructure review in step three, you are now ready to make an informed plan to best support overall business goals. Prioritize strategic IT initiatives based on the organizations’ needs to assure business success.
Once you have a prioritized technology roadmap, document the implementation process of each piece, complete with timelines and ownership. Indicate how plans and equipment will be vetted, either internally or through an IT consultant or your outsourced managed IT services provider. Be sure to include the project expectations like the associated benefits and ROI timeline, as well as the measures you will take to monitor project success.
It’s worth noting, that each individual strategic IT initiative would also have a separate, comprehensive project plan documented prior to its execution. This plan would document the detailed specifics of the project implementation, including purpose, milestones, allocation, timelines, equipment, installation, associated employee training, etc.
5. Build in a review process and flexibility for updates
A strategic IT plan will encompass several years. However, that doesn’t mean that once it’s documented, you can store it on the shelf until it expires. Set a process for regular review and plan for changes and updates. You should regularly track progress to ensure the plan is on track and make adjustments as needed. Although a strategic review might occur once or twice per year, it is important that leadership is regularly reviewing your progress and updating the plan to best protect your IT investments. And, if business needs change, be sure to consider any necessary changes to the strategic plan to support that. The ultimate goal is to have a plan that is aligned with the current needs, objectives, and goals of the business at all times.
Following the process of these five best practices to strategic development will equip you with the appropriate people, defined objectives, informed understanding, validated research, documented planning, and success metrics to ensure the effectiveness of your plan. Tailor these steps to your business’ landscape and specific needs.
Our recommendations for your 2021 IT Strategy
Specific IT projects will vary according to each business’ needs. One business may be focused on a new WiFi installation while another is planning a migration to cloud-based file sharing, and yet another is implementing new security controls.
However, when planning your IT strategy and approach to specific projects, there are three recommendations we encourage you to take into account:
- Develop a technology roadmap- A technology roadmap does more than provide you with a visual progression of IT projects and timelines. It also enables you to more holistically view your overall technology environment, both present and future. Your technology and information systems are integrated; one system can impact others. By setting a technology roadmap, you give yourself both a map to follow and increased visibility to identify any potential issues.
- Make security part of every initiative- Regardless of whether the project is a new firewall or a new workstation for an employee, be sure to include a security discussion as part of every single project. It’s just too important not to do it. When deploying new systems, you are adding more threat vectors to your business’ network and you are responsible for making sure they are secure. This includes not only hardware installations, but also third-party software and cloud services you may employ. Be sure their security settings are properly vetted.
- Train your team- Make the most out of your IT investments by making sure your team is well-trained on how to use them. This ensures both that you're taking advantage of the technology you deploy, as well as making the most efficient use of your employees’ time (and productivity). This is true for any new technology deployments and for existing key company systems. And don’t forget security training as well. Your team is your best line of defense against email phishing attacks. Equip them with the knowledge to protect your data by regularly providing cybersecurity awareness training.
Every business’ strategic IT plan will be different, according to their needs, size, and current technology landscape. Following the best practices above will help you design a plan that is right for your organization and ensures its effectiveness and the best return on your IT investments.
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