Modern IT strategy development looks different today than it did 10 or 20 years ago. Not long ago, and strategic thinking was usually the exclusive preserve of senior IT management. Sometimes management consultancies were also tasked with shaping the future of IT. The latter often led to acceptance problems and slow implementation. With a much more participatory approach, a new path of modern IT strategy development is being taken here. The new approach is described in more detail below. The main changes and advantages compared to the classic approach are pointed out. And finally, there are some practical tips on how to apply it.
Der Open Strategy Ansatz als Grundlage
Die partizipative IT-Strategieentwicklung greift den Ansatz von Open Strategy auf. This has been developed over the past 2 years by professors and consultants Christian Stadler, Julia Hautz, Kurt Matzler and Stephan Friedrich von den Eichen (see also link).
Basically, it is about opening up the strategy process by involving both their own staff and external third parties in strategy development and formulation. Instead of developing strategies only within management and consulting circles, they deliberately force access to other sources of knowledge. For example, the involvement of frontline employees, customers, partners and suppliers. While competitive criticality is an inhibiting factor in corporate strategy, this is only partly true for IT strategy development. Nevertheless, it can be seen that IT strategies are mostly developed by IT executives, who often have access to well-known IT consultancies. Die Durchführung von gemeinsamen und regelmäßigen Strategie-Workshops mit Mitarbeiter*innen aus den unternehmenseigenen Geschäftsbereichen, als auch bestehenden Dienstleistern und Partnern wird noch viel zu wenig genutzt. Within the IT department alone, the IT specialists should be involved at an early stage, in addition to the managers.
The advantages of participative IT strategy development
Die Weisheit der vielen
IT strategy development should not be limited to a small circle of top managers or external consultants. The more intensively business units, service providers and employees* are involved, the more diverse the approaches and ideas. And this principle already applies to the analysis. The frequent mention of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities or risks indicate a high degree of relevance. Even if one or the other manager does not always like to see or hear this. However, managers do well to increase the probability of success of an IT strategy with the help of collective intelligence. Auch bestehende IT-Dienstleister können dazu beitragen. They should, however, take off their sales glasses and analyse the customer situation without reservations. If the users from the business units are considered internal customers of IT, it is important to communicate openly that your arguments will flow in without claiming to be able to take everything into account.
Diversity instead of narrow-mindedness or the dilemma with confirmation bias
If IT strategy development is carried out by a few, the results can quickly go in one direction. Thus, (departmental) self-interests usually stand in the way of a promising joint IT strategy. This behaviour can be traced back to the so-called confirmation bias. Employees in leadership positions see their own convictions confirmed by others. In this way, they selectively choose information that fits their own perception.
But new strategic directions are based on courage and thinking outside of familiar patterns.
Both external people, but also the users in the specialist departments, as well as the company’s own IT specialists who are operationally involved, are valuable suppliers of new ideas or approaches. Employees who are new to the company can also often contribute unbiased ideas, even if they do not come from IT.
A greater willingness to implement or avoid “not-invented-by-us” thinking
A major advantage of participatory IT strategy development is that implementation fails less often. This is simply because the employees involved in the IT and specialist departments also feel responsible for successful implementation. Changes are more likely to be accepted if they are brought about by their own ideas or users have the feeling that strategic decisions are not being made over their heads. This behaviour is sometimes also based on the “not-invented-by-us” syndrome. This is a reluctance, i.e. a negative attitude towards ideas and innovations that are brought to the IT staff from outside. The more and the earlier the employees from the affected divisions are involved, the greater the willingness to accept and go along with the IT strategy.
Realistic and concrete maxims for action instead of theoretical treatises
IT strategies that the company’s own IT professionals have been involved in developing are more compatible with the company’s reality. Outsiders are not familiar with the current (political) situation in the company, do not know about IT investments that have just been made and ongoing IT projects, or are simply too far away from the day-to-day business. The latter is often cited as a main reason for bringing in outsiders, supplemented with a reference to a possibly prevailing operational blindness. However, this is often overrated. In many cases, in-house staff are quite capable of freeing themselves from operational blindness if the questions are asked appropriately and they do not experience interference from the supervisors present. The measures proposed by the own IT staff and users are more concrete and tangible. People know exactly what could be done, even in detail, because they deal with the processes and operational issues on a daily basis or are in direct contact with internal and external clients.
Simple is not always the best strategy, but the best strategy is always simple
Simple and understandable should be at least the mission and vision of corporate IT, which as guidelines reflect the IT strategy. Storytelling is an essential tool for successful communication in today’s world. This also applies to the internal corporate communication of IT services vis-à-vis specialist departments. The more IT employees were involved in strategy development, the more stories there are to tell. Both managers and experts tend to use a lot of anglicisms. Technical terms that are on everyone’s lips at the moment. Und so werden diese “Modewörter” oft in die Strategieformulierung aufgenommen. Das fördert aber Missverständnisse bei den Mitarbeitern und konterkariert manchmal die eigentliche Botschaft dahinter. Strategies are there so that everyone can understand them and what needs to be done to implement them. Keep them simple in communication and find out early on by involving your own staff as well as the users.
Meets the expectations of a new generation
The classic approach to IT strategy development is also at odds with the new world of work (New Work). Employees want to be involved in the future direction of IT. And not be presented top-down by managers for implementation. It would also be fatal not to take into account the opinions and ideas of Generation Z, because they work with modern IT applications and communication media, and have a pronounced interest in technology and are open and receptive to new technical innovations that could be used in their own companies. Generation Z can thus contribute important innovative impulses to the development of the IT strategy.
Practical tips for participatory IT strategy development
- Trust your own IT staff and involve as many users as possible from different hierarchies and business units. The more diverse the composition, the more diverse and innovative the contributions.
- As a first step, open up the strategy process to your own IT professionals and users. This step already brings many new insights and ideas. The involvement of service providers and partners can then take place selectively to verify or supplement the actual/target analysis.
- Rely on proven strategic management tools that are easy to use and build on each other. It does not take the latest sophisticated frameworks to develop good IT strategies. Strategy development must not become an academic exercise, but must produce initial concrete results quickly, intuitively and without a long training period.
- Use digital solutions to work on your IT strategy flexibly and independently of time and place. This way you can also reach employees and users at international locations and are not bound to time-limited workshops at one location.
- The most suitable digital platforms are those specifically designed for team strategy development, such as ConWISE.de (Link to the test version). Online whiteboards and collaboration solutions such as Miro and Mural offer many templates, but do not guide users through the process and are designed more as creativity tools for online meetings than for stand-alone offline work.
- Ask service providers to be neutral to ensure that strategies are innovative and do not become a sales pitch for their own services.
- Use external impulses when developing your IT strategy. These can also come from AI-based systems.
- Se should always be aware that the employees in the company are smarter than the smartest expert and know more about technological trends than many people assume.
- Follow a structured approach to answer the 3 key questions: Where are we with IT today? Where do we want IT to go from here? How do we get there?
- Developing future-proof IT strategies is not just a management task. Involve your colleagues.
- Commission or appoint a person to coordinate and moderate the process. To get additional impetus, this can also be an experienced IT consultant.
You can also get further impulses in the article Strategy development in the 21st century.
Dhe traditional approach to IT strategy development, where top management retreats with its team of consultants and works out a strategic plan behind closed doors, has had its day. It is no longer enough to present the results of this work in the form of powerpoints to staff in town hall meetings and then set a specific budget for them to implement the strategy. The IT managers already benefit from the participation of their IT specialists as well as the users in the analysis phase (Where do we stand with our IT today?). No one knows the company and the industry as well as they do. It is important to get away from old ways of thinking that strategic IT management is the sovereign task of the CIO or IT director. One would overlook the great potential that lies in one’s own IT organisation if one instead only relied on the knowledge of a few.