The Care and Feeding of an IT Vision

The Care and Feeding of an IT Vision

An IT vision can yield rewards if you craft a clear and concise framework that speaks to both the IT team and your business partners

In the early days, quite frankly, considering where the organization was at the time, the goal of achieving the stated IT vision - to become AMP's innovator and integrator - looked like a serious overreach. So much so that CIO and director of IT Australia at AMP Lee Barnett used to make little mention of the vision in front of the business.

"This is the vision we've had for a number of years now, and in the early days it was probably something that looked pretty unattainable given where we were. It looked like a real stretch," Barnett says.

"But I think the whole idea of a vision is that it is fairly challenging; it's something that you're putting out there that is not going to be achieved in a two- or three-year time frame. I think to be honest in the early years it wasn't something that I made a big song and dance about. It was something that was very much what guided me rather than something that I banged the drum about in terms of the business."

What the business was really interested in hearing about in those early days was how IT intended to fix a lot of the basics, Barnett says, which prompted her decision to lead IT towards fulfilment of the vision in three main phases. The first one focused very much on the basics and governance, including service management, financial management and performance management. The second phase oversaw the rebuilding of AMP's project management and execution capability. Only during the third phase (currently under way) is IT focusing more on the enablement function, embracing innovation, knowledge management and talent management.

"I think in terms of interactions with your business colleagues, I'm not so sure how much they really care about what your particular vision is - they care about what you're doing to deliver to their business needs," Barnett says.

The Right Direction

You cannot expect to effect change without a vision to serve as the compass to guide you through perilous seas. A vision should detail your current position, your intended destination and your intended activities upon reaching that destination, as well as providing a chart (or road map in terra firma and current parlance) plotting the - frequently very long - journey ahead.

Karl D Schubert, author of the CIO Survival Guide: The Roles and Responsibilities of the Chief Information Officer, says competent CIOs establish visions for their work that matter to the organization's basic values, mission and strategy, and that are reasonable in terms of available resources such as people, skills, time and capital. The CIO, in turn, must be able to articulate the vision to a wide range of people, and those in IT leadership positions must believe in the importance of the vision and actually work to achieve it.

"A leader without a vision is like a boat without a rudder, and with the increasing importance of the IT function for all aspects of a company's performance, mature CEOs and others look to the CIO as an IT leader: someone who can function as a leadership peer in the context of how IT can best leverage their company-wide vision," Schubert says. "They depend on the CIO to create and articulate a vision for IT that aligns with the overall vision that their superiors have for the entire company."

At one point in his career, a friend gave Schubert a definition of "vision" that has stayed with him through the years: "An executive is a person who can envision a future for the organization and then inspire colleagues to join in building that future".

Think Big, Act Small

Creating an IT vision can be quite unlike creating a corporate vision, says BearingPoint's country leader Charles Cochran. Having been involved in many vision-setting exercises, Cochran says most of those involved in creating a business vision tend to start from the desired endpoint and work backwards. "But with a traditional IT project you start with a work plan and work forwards," he says. "So I think that the main thing is to keep the big picture in mind but focus on tactical successes. What I call: Think big, but act small."

What one should never attempt to do is to try to work in isolation from the business. Rather, the kind of strategy and the vision that you have within the IT department must be "locked in" to the company strategy, says Dave Butcher, BT's director of transformation, who has been working to transform the IT division of BT for well over a year. BT's business vision calls for the organization to transform itself from a telco ("an old-fashioned phone company") to a networked IT services company. The success of that vision, Butcher says, depends to a very large extent on his ability to build an IT department that is both highly effective and contributes to that goal.

"We spent a lot of time with the profit and loss parts of our company that we serve as the IT department, getting to grips with what change they were trying to drive from a business perspective, and therefore the implications of that change on IT. Our vision is very much locked into the growth in revenue, reduction in costs, speed to market, kind of requirements that the businesses are laying upon us to serve. If we weren't terribly valuable to the rest of BT we would be endangering ourselves," he says.

Before defining BT's IT vision, Butcher and his team created a review that outlined directions for change in the IT department and implications of those changes both in terms of speed to market and cost of running the department. Developed after numerous conversations across the business, the review was put before BT's operating committee, which comprises the CEOs of all of the businesses, for their agreement.

"Part of the change that we brought about was to set up within each business a CIO function whose role is to basically understand where the business is going, identify the requirements of the IT function, and then provide for that strategic discussion within the business. We want this person to be someone who can drive change as opposed to simply being on the receiving end of it. One role of these guys is to ensure that there is an alignment between what [those businesses] are doing and what they want us to do, and that has caused us to change the way we structure all of the work that we do," Butcher says.

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