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Blazing a Strategy Trail

Blazing a Strategy Trail

When your mission depends on the goodwill of thousands of volunteer firefighters, being able to communicate effectively with them is more than a business challenge - it's a matter of life and death.

Like most organisations, before the year 2000, Victoria's Country Fire Authority (CFA) had no real strategy either for its information needs or its infrastructure. Instead, the more proactive people in the rural firefighting service would put programs and proposals to management, and if management thought they were worthwhile, it would approve them.

As a result, the CFA found itself struggling to manage multiple technologies and applications, overlapping processes and functionality, and the resultant duplication, triplication - in some case quadruplication - of data. Many organisations have been in exactly the same boat, of course, but when your mission - saving rural and regional Victorians from the ravages of fire while keeping your firefighters safe from harm - depends on the goodwill of some 58,000 courageous and selfless volunteers, being able to communicate effectively with them matters. It matters a lot.

So like most organisations, the CFA has been attempting to rectify the problem for some considerable time. But according to CFA business manager IT strategy Hunter Smith, the CFA has gone well beyond most Australian organisations in evolving a more mature approach to the issue of achieving IT-business alignment. The difference, he says, is that however well covered other organisations think they are on the issue, the CFA now has a true information management strategy, where most organisations do not.

"I think the rhetoric is there, if you're reading the magazines, going to conferences, but as I've discovered, not many organisations actually have an overall information management strategy," Smith says. "Certainly I've spoken at a few conferences in the past 18 months, and presented our strategy a number of times to other organisations, and there seems quite a lot of interest. So it has become apparent to me that not many organisations have an overall strategy for information needs. Some of them have a strategy for their technology, but I think there's a big difference between your information needs and technology."

Although the CFA started some serious IT strategy work in 2000, it took a fundamental shift in thinking for it to realise that no information technology strategy can ever hope to satisfy the core mission of the organisation. There is no point developing systems unless they produce improvements to the organisation's core purpose, Smith says. That means moving away from thinking about how technology can serve the organisation to thinking about the organisation's information needs as a whole.

But it also means ensuring that information strategy is driven by business process needs, not computer applications and manual processes based on functional silos. The CFA is now well into a four-year journey to implement the process-driven information management strategy, as it strives to improve the quality of data and the business and emergency management processes via the progressive implementation of multiple projects towards common goals.

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