The Relevant IT Plan

Plans have a high mortality rate. That's partly because while they are made for long-term results, short-term payoffs are usually limited to abstractions, such as a better understanding of an organization's goals. But if a plan cannot be kept vibrant, daily routine will dampen commitment to those goals and to the actions necessary to achieve them.

Our city created a 10-year plan called the Information Technology Architecture. The question is: How can a technology plan be kept relevant over 10 years?

The first step in keeping a plan relevant is to design it in a way that will allow for modifications without changing the overall direction of the plan itself. For our 10-year plan, we couched our eight strategic directions in business terms. For example, one strategic direction was to pursue electronic commerce and community interaction-a direction that is relevant over the period of the plan. Also, the goals and actions need constant attention while politicians and staff debate how far and how fast electronic interaction should be pursued.

In our plan, each strategic direction has five to 10 supporting strategies. These are more specific to the technology but are still couched in business terms. Using the same example of EC, one of the supporting strategies is to conduct pilots to better understand the effects of the direction.

Technology-specific goals are found at the next level. Each of the supporting strategies has numerous "action ideas." These ideas are the most prone to revision because specific technologies change and must be evaluated within their business context. Several years ago our first EC pilot was designed to improve purchasing practices. The technology was clumsy and the benefits were meager, but the pilot was successful in that we learned what to avoid. To facilitate the sale of information, we later piloted bulletin board technology, which was less clumsy. And of course, the World Wide Web soon came along with even better technology. Now, as most other organizations, we are piloting Web applications.

Because we have an architecture, or plan, that discusses the need to conduct pilots, our successive projects are not viewed as a litany of failures. They are seen as explorations of alternatives in developing business processes that will be effective for our city.

The next step in keeping the plan alive is to create ways of acknowledging the plan in everyday work. Following are some practices that have worked for our city.

Most organizations require justifications for major technology purchases. Our justifications cite the strategies supported from the architecture and describe how the evaluated product advances the achievement of the strategy. Steering committees for individual projects are common. Committee members should be well-versed in how their projects fit into the technology plan and the business plan. If the members need some help, we provide presentations supported by handouts. Depending on the length of the project, updates on the strategies are effective reminders. Presenting information at every opportunity is one of my favorite tactics. Use your creativity to relate a presentation on the plan or the strategies to any audience.

As the presenter of our budget, I briefly review our architecture to ensure that our executives understand that we have management control over spending. An update cycle for plans is crucial, and it should be expressed in the plan document. The update cycle for our 10-year architecture is three years; for our three-year business plan, it is one year; for our annual work plan, it is three months. Sticking to the update cycle builds widespread credibility, even among those who do not understand the plan's contents. Communicating the plan to all stakeholders is an obvious requirement. Not everyone will be attending a presentation, no matter how hard you try to reach the right audience. Our information services department has a technology newsletter for all online customers. In it, we publish brief annual status reports on each strategic direction.

All organizations have structures and processes for communicating with their staff and other stakeholders. Use them as the natural avenues for promoting your plan. Sometimes you may have to be creative in explaining to zealous gatekeepers why such avenues should be open to you. Think of such challenges as more ways to educate the key people in your organization about the importance of planning for information technology.

-- Judith M. Umbach is the executive director for the Year 2000 for the city of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. She can be reached at jumbach@shaw.wave.ca.

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