When is an IT strategy a business strategy?

There is a truism that I have often heard repeated by teachers that when a pupil performs well it’s because of the pupil’s talent, and when they perform badly it’s blamed on the teacher. This sprung to mind when I recently read reports of research from Gartner about companies and their IT strategies.

The news item was headlined “Don’t throw out IT Strategy in hard times”, but went on to talk about how Gartner were cautioning against enterprises discarding investment in technology that helps them to grow their business in preference to initiatives that reduce IT costs. It seems to me that an IT Strategy can exist where technology is merely a supporting function to a business, but when a business relies on technology to grow or gain competetive advantage, that’s a business (not IT) strategy.

Whilst it might sometimes seem that our world is one where organisations can’t survive without information technology, there is a world of difference between firms for whom IT is core to business expansion, and those for whom the consumption of IT is vital but not of competitive significance in the same way that utility consumption or office space are vital rarely set most companies apart from their peers. Moreover, an IT strategy that talks in terms of external market impact which isn’t in alignment with a broader business strategy is, I would argue, a castle in the air.

I’ve been the unfortunate witness to initiatives at past employers aiming to generate new revenues that had been spearheaded by the IT department. They had not really had the success that they were expecting, mostly because the rest of the business were too busy wondering what the heck it was that the IT people were up to. On the other hand, I’ve also seen many occasions where business units have commissioned technology without the involvement of the IT group in an attempt to move their business forward, only for the project to come to a crashing halt as the realities of the enterprise’s infrastructure came into conflict with what had been bought from outside.

Rather than seeing continued debates in 2012 about business/IT alignment as being some sort of indictment on the industry, I actually think that it just reflects how complicated the alignment of technical, social and business “systems” (in its broadest sense) can be. Companies that pull back from technology investment in the current climate might be taking short-term decisions – but if the alternative is bankruptcy, then there inevitably will be pressure to push back on capital investment. It’s also inevitable that hard economic times will be a catalyst to cost saving: that should be seen as an opportunity, because it can be a strong lever to clear up mess from the past where there otherwise wouldn’t be the political will.

An IT strategy that provides support to a business that doesn’t see technology as a growth enabler can be just as aligned as a business strategy that seeks growth through technological innovation with support from IT. Both can be appropriate models – it’s just when they exist simultaneously that problems will arise. A successful strategy (business, IT or whatever else) requires not only direction and some good ideas, but is absolutely dependent on the buy-in of the people who will need to help deliver it for it to achieve anything tangible.

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