The Planning Imperative

Tucked away in my files is a small newspaper clipping that states that Sony Corp. updates its 250-year plan annually. I have never taken the time to verify the report. After all, who would make up something so preposterous! Instead, when hotshots around me castigate planning as impractical, I take comfort from the success of Sony.

Plans often are denigrated as "shelfware." Some plans deserve the name, but more often only the report is put on the shelf. In good planning processes, the goals and actions are transferred to the brains of those who implement them. Once these are part of people's thought patterns, consulting the actual report is rarely needed.

How do ideas best enter the brain? By participation. The more that people participate meaningfully in the creation of the plan, the more those people will remember it and take action. The people who participate the most will implement the objectives with the most enthusiasm.

Plans come in many varieties. Jotting down what to do tomorrow is spontaneous, important and little-suited to participation by others. Annual plans are common. They range from formulaic documents adhering to company policy to genuine targets for staff action. Three- to five-year plans are often discussed but rarely seem to be produced. They are the most subject to fatigue; one group writes the first three-year plan, and no one ever broaches the topic again. Ten-year plans are scarce; however, developing a 10-year plan made me understand the difference between real planning and merely extrapolating from current concerns.

Uncertainty exists; it isn't going away. I doubt the uncertainty factor is much different in this age than in any other.

But planning is not about predicting the future. Planning is not about controlling the future. Planning is about handling what the future brings. If the events of the future are well-handled, we succeed and contribute to a more pleasant outcome for ourselves and others. If future events are mishandled, the bumps and grinds of reacting can wear us out before our time.

The ultimate goal of any plan is to distinguish what needs to be handled from what does not and to identify the criteria for the selection. Almost everyone on the consuming side of information technology seems to have been persuaded that planning is hopeless because the technology changes so fast. Yet all the vendors who talk to me can describe accurately what their selling proposition is and how their products will improve my organization's environment. This knowledge is the result of someone's planning.

As consumers-and consumers with limited budgets-we have the responsibility to apply planning to our consumption. We must have a buying proposition and know how our selected mix of products will improve our organization's environment. Then we must be able to sell these decisions to our own customers, colleagues and funding bodies. That is a plan.

Because the IT market is volatile, planning is essential. It is probably obvious that a necessary component of planning is thought. Yet too many organizations contract with consultants and vendors to develop a plan for them. As a result, most of the thinking about the goals is done in the contractor's head. Yet the contractor will not be making decisions for your organization. Even if your organization relies heavily on external recommendations, effective decisions will be made only by people who are entrusted with this responsibility. These people must do the critical thinking during the creation of the plan. They must understand the consequences of their decisions. These are the participants.

Not all organizations think carefully about who is entrusted with decision-making in IT. The concept that only technicians can make decisions about technology clouds the business orientation of many questions. For example, deciding whether to follow mainstream vendors or niche vendors has much more to do with business strategy than with technology. There are technological consequences, but these can be understood by any competent leader.

In other words, plans can be flexible, planning can be affordable, and planners can be action-oriented.

Judith M. Umbach is the acting director of the Data Processing Services Department and head of the IT function for the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She can be reached at jumbach@gov.calgary.ab.ca.

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