Strategic planning seems to have taken a bit of a holiday in recent times, especially in the private sector where many listed companies are so concerned about their future that they do not bother to think beyond the next quarter results. However, according to John Smyrk, a strategic planning consultant and principal of Sigma Management Sciences, it is a mistake to think of "strategic" purely in terms of time frames.
"People tend to think that if it's a long time frame it's strategic, if it's a short time frame it's not. That's a very naive definition. The classical definition of a strategic plan is that it's closely linked to the pathways an organisation believes it needs to follow in order to achieve a particular end point or vision," Smyrk says. "There are lots of people doing what they think is IT strategic planning. However, if you look across the quality of those plans they range from the utterly indifferent to the very elegant and sophisticated."
Smyrk also rejects the excuse that there is little point in making long-term plans these days, given how quickly the business landscape and technology change. "That's a common misconception," he says. "People confuse the underlying infrastructure directions with the almost day-to-day movements at the applications level. On the technological side, commitments made in communications and operating systems, for example, tend to have a very long life indeed."
Nor is big beautiful when it comes to strategic plans, according to Smyrk. He cites the Auditor-General's department in Canberra as an example of a sophisticated and elegant IT strategic plan that spans only 12 pages yet provides a complete framework within which the department can make all of its important IT decisions. By contrast, he recalls a presentation he attended given by the CIO of a large global mining company whose IT strategic plan Smyrk describes as amateurish at best and a complete and utter waste of plane travel at worst. In fact, Smyrk thinks the level of sophistication in strategic planning generally is much higher in the public sector than in the private sector, which has come about through two factors.
"First, there is a higher appreciation of the value of planning in government in general. Some of that might give rise to wasted plans and we all acknowledge that. However, one of the interesting and valuable by-products of that is that there is a widespread acknowledgment that what happens in IT has to be planned and linked into what's happening on the business side. The second element is that there is a cohort of relatively sophisticated senior IT people in many large public sector organisations who are able to carry that through," Smyrk says.
ABA: Outsourcing Strategy
As an organisation with responsibilities that are subject to rapid changes in technology and political imperatives, information technology itself represents approximately 7.5 per cent of the Australian Broadcasting Authority's (ABA) total expenditure. However, according to Neil Shannon, the ABA's manager, IT & facilities management, in the past the application of IT was very reactive and ad hoc, and this resulted in a diverse mix of equipment, software and systems.
Additionally, in 2000, the ABA outsourced its IT infrastructure to Ipex as part of the federal government's outsourcing policy. However, as part of the "Group A" set of eight government departments, the ABA accounts for only a small proportion of the five-year contract with Ipex. The other members of the group are also all Canberra-based, whereas the ABA is mainly Sydney-based, and consequently Shannon thinks the outsourcing arrangement has not worked as well as it could for the ABA.
Shannon joined the ABA in May 2001 and was brought in, he says, principally for his contract management skills rather than his strengths in IT. He quickly realised it was time for the authority to think more strategically about where it was going in terms of IT, but discovered there was no strategic plan as such. So he set about developing one. "My original intention was to try and do that in-house," he says. "However, with all the other issues going on that was just not possible. So we decided to go out to the market and get somebody in to partner with us in developing that IT strategic plan.
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