The Ghost of Folly

The Ghost of Folly

A long-term IT blueprint won’t come back to haunt you

Elizabeth Winchester was a deeply troubled individual. Her late husband had been Oliver F Winchester, the creator of the Winchester repeating rifle. After his departure Elizabeth began to appreciate that the family fortune was built on a weapon responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. What if the souls of these people came back from the afterlife to torment her? She sought spiritual help and was advised that ghosts never haunt houses that are under construction. For the remaining 37 years of her life Elizabeth carried out non-stop building work at her southern California home.

The resulting house still stands as her legacy. It is a hideously complex creation that is evidence of what happens when you build without following a plan. Stairs lead into blank walls, windows open onto other windows, corridors go nowhere, bathrooms and bedrooms abound. In many ways it is a carbon copy of corporate IT environments. Are not the islands of technology in businesses today a reflection of the fact that people have implemented IT systems without stopping to see the big picture?

The challenge, though, is how can you plan when the future is so uncertain. Without the luxury of a time machine to see the future, CIOs are left to plan in a time of stock-market depression, relentless corporate mergers and acquisitions, never-ending downsizing and anxieties about the threats of terrorism. It is perhaps not surprising then that IDC research reveals that where an IS plan exists, it is increasingly revised on an annual basis.

To me, this is evidence of the short-term thinking in most businesses. After nine years of running InTEP, it is apparent to me that in the last few years most CEOs regard visionary thinking as looking 90 days ahead. CIOs report that more than ever they believe their executives perceive IT in operational rather than strategic terms. Unfortunately, this view means that a cost-control perspective dominates IT investment activities.

A recent IDC report advocates the reasons for taking a more long-term view to IT planning. It argues that if IT is to equip the business with the information it needs to compete, then the CIO needs to first recognise what IT should - or should not be working on. To that end, the report outlines a framework for IT planning. At the outset this entails identifying a mission statement that articulates to the rest of the business just what IT staff see as their purpose. While many may feel mission statements are mere window dressing, the report sees the formulation of a mission statement as a vital chance for IS staff to analyse what their customers really want and what IT should be doing to assist them. The mission statement needs to embody the purpose of IT and what value technology can offer the business, (for example, speed, innovation and the like). This then results in objectives to help drive this mission.

The report suggests that SWOT analysis and portfolio-mapping techniques should be applied to all potential IT strategies to determine the most suitable. It seems the challenge today in the under-resourced corporate world is to determine what not to do. These strategies then lead to tactical activities that embody the chosen strategy. Finally, there is a need for review within the plan to measure the gains generated by these activities.

In the end, CIOs know that in these cost-conscious times business executives continue to question the value that IT brings to the organisation. If this cannot be demonstrated, IT will continue to live in an operational climate of never-ending penny-pinching. As the IDC report argues, IT needs to step out of react mode and take a more active part in assessing where it should be best spending its time. Then, like Elizabeth Winchester, it should be able to subdue the ghosts of its past which continue to haunt it today.

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