Linking IT to the Business Plan

Why is it still disputed that information technology is an integral part of business? As obvious as it may seem, advocates still are needed to champion the idea of closely linking the IT plan to the business plan. The root of this controversy is the aged claim that technology is "just a tool." Perhaps at one time it was, but that is no longer the case. Technology changes business.

For greater understanding of the role of IT, let's look at a few other modern "tools." The telephone is just a tool to let us communicate with each other, and originally it only let us talk. Today, the transfer of data on telephone systems holds the world together. The automobile is just a tool for getting from Point A to Point B, but ease of mobility has transformed society.

Even in these last months of the 1990s, some senior executives think business can and should establish strategic directions that are independent of technology and then dictate that technology enable these strategies. No successful executive would attempt to set strategy without understanding the financing of a plan, so just as financial capabilities help define what an organization can achieve, so can IT open avenues to new services and improved productivity.

A case in point is Las Vegas, which has a strategy to enable all city services for the World Wide Web (www.ci.las-vegas.nv.us). Every new system is designed to work on the Web, and new front ends are being developed for existing systems. This shapes the very nature of all services, not just the delivery mechanism. There is no point in strategy-setters leaving a director of information services waiting for planning results. Service and infrastructure departments have to work collaboratively on technology and service strategies.

As usual, customer acceptance of new service strategies is fraught with problems. A most disconcerting problem is citizens' initial fear when information previously available only in dusty files turns up on the Internet. That is, it remains a problem until the information satisfies an urgent need. This year Calgary, Alberta, changed to a market-value assessment approach to property taxation, and every house had a new assessed value. Instantly, on the day of the release of the newly assessed values, thousands of people turned to the Internet to compare their assessments with others, a service available for the first time electronically at home. Even though the demand overwhelmed the capacity of the security system, the same level of privacy was maintained on the information as when it is delivered in paper format. And previously voiced concerns disappeared in the hunger for detailed, accurate information.

One of the most pernicious reasons for the exclusion of IT in planning is that many local governments have not formalized their business-planning processes. My view is that as long as business continues to be conducted, planning is going on. Few people may be privy to the plans, or plans may be in the heads of a privileged few, but every government runs to a tune.

Computing and the Web have a tendency to move the business imperative into new arenas. E-commerce has proved to be a sort of magic wand in the private sector, but it has not found a comfortable niche in government.

However, the paradigm of e-commerce can work well for public services. As each individual discovers the ease of checking the Web for information, unnecessary delay tends to foster increasing impatience. For example, in the course of preparing for an overseas vacation,

I all but abandoned the concept of travel agents. I found I could fill out information forms faster than the agent, and Internet search engines would do the rest.

What are the implications for governments? For example, why shouldn't a small business be able to license itself with all government agencies in one session via the Web? Couldn't we actually improve compliance through standardization?

Children brought up in the Web culture are growing into adults empowered by instant information. Figuring out how to derive a business strategy from IT is difficult, but in the local government arena, we must quickly learn how to serve these new citizens and voters.

- Judith Umbach is executive director for the Year 2000 at Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She can be reached at jumbach@home.com.

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