Long Form: Managing IT Strategy in a Non-Technical Organization, Part 1

Part 1: Analyzing your IT Environment

Managing IT Strategy in Non-Technical Organizations

Managing IT Strategy in Non-Technical Organizations, Part 1:

  • Introduction
    • Defining IT Strategy
    • Defining the Non-Technical Organization and the Intended Audience
    • The Problem
  • Analyzing your IT Environment
    • Performing a SWOT analysis of the existing IT infrastructure
    • Analyzing the results obtained in the SWOT analysis
    • Decide on one (or more) area of priority
    • Research potential solutions
    • Recommend a specific IT solution


Defining IT Strategy

Although specific elements may vary, most organizations will have the following documents:

  • Core Values (the company’s why)
  • Mission Statement (the company’s how)
  • Vision Statement (where the company wants to be in the future).

The overall Business Strategy is informed by these documents; it provides a technical overview of how the organization will reach their vision within the constraints of their core values and while fulfilling their mission.

An organization’s IT Strategy aims to support and facilitate the Business Strategy through the utilization of technological resources.

This may include optimizing and maximizing current assets, purchasing and implementing new assets, training technical personnel and end-users, and, of course, unplanned work (i.e. “firefighting”).

Defining the Non-Technical Organization and the Intended Audience

This article is written with medium-sized companies, with in-house IT Departments in mind. It is meant to provide IT Leaders with a general methodology for developing and managing IT strategy. This isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead these ideas and principles should be adapted to each organization’s unique requirements.

The Problem

Technology is in a constant state of change and evolution. Inspecting at the industry, from a Systems perspective, just ten years ago would have revealed that organizations maintained their own infrastructural hardware and many of them even housed that hardware – the hardware was almost always owned and maintained by the company.

An inspection five years ago would show that most companies had moved into third-party data-centers and server (and even network) virtualization was ubiquitous. Hyper-convergence also began to make its appearance, and the cool, new kid on the block was “cloud computing”.

Now, in 2018, cloud computing is all the rage. Even if you’re IT department is not at the technological forefront, it’s still likely that you have a few line of business (LOB) applications that run in the cloud – the most popular example of this being Office 365. If your organization is more progressive, you might run most, or all, of your major infrastructure, in the cloud.

So what is the problem?

The problem is that IT assets generally have a short lifespan, and when IT assets reach their end of life (EoL) it may not simply be a matter of replacing the hardware. Oftentimes the entire IT strategy must be revised and updated to include (or at least address) new and emerging technological innovations.

If your business is on a three-year cycle, your “strategy” may be a state of perpetual reaction. You may be stuck in the break-neck cycle of

Purchase -> Install -> Train -> Optimize -> Plan -> Purchase -> Install -> Train -> Optimize -> Plan -> etc.

There’s not much time to breathe, much less proactively and thoughtfully plan for the future. If you’re in this rut, I’ve been there too. It’s a frustrating and frantic place to be. My goal in this article is to provide a more proactive approach to managing IT strategy.

Analyzing your IT Environment

Performing a SWOT Analysis of the Existing IT Infrastructure

In the real world, I’ve experienced objections when a SWOT analysis is suggested. I realize that it may seem formulaic or contrived. Technical personnel, especially, take pride in knowing and understanding their infrastructure and the suggestion of a SWOT analysis is sometimes interpreted as a challenge to that understanding.

However, I strongly recommend, and firmly believe in the usefulness of SWOT analysis. I submit that rather than challenging the expertise of technical personnel, a SWOT analysis is useful in aggregating and focusing that expertise to the benefit of the organization.

As an IT Leader, I recommend that you gather your team – or at least your team leads (depending on the size of your department) – for the SWOT analysis exercise. At least one person should be responsible for recording the details of the various elements that the group identifies. It is important that these things are recorded in writing and easily accessible for later reference.

I’ve written about SWOT Analysis in greater detail here: The Basics of SWOT Analysis, but I’ll include a few notes below as well.

Identifying your Strengths

Recall that Strengths in a SWOT analysis are elements within your department or organization. The first step in performing a SWOT analysis is to identify your Strengths and to describe the advantage that they provide for you.

Examples of Strengths you possess might include:

  • Seamless cross-site infrastructure
  • Comprehensive team collaboration tools
  • Robust security measures

Identifying your Weaknesses

Similar to your Strengths, these are elements within your department or organization. Enumerate your weaknesses and the potential liability that they represent to your department or organization.

Examples of Weaknesses you possess might include:

  • Lack of scalability options
  • Lack of formal documentation
  • Geographically-dependent Infrastructure
  • Reliance on traditional IT infrastructure technologies

Identifying your Opportunities

Unlike your Strengths and Weaknesses, Opportunities are factors that exist external to your department or organization. Exploring these Opportunities may reveal factors that you can use to maximize your Strengths and strengthen your Weaknesses. In fact, your final recommendation is likely to come from the Opportunities that you identify.

An example of an Opportunities analysis might include the following:

  • Technological innovations in infrastructure design and management
  • Enhanced, comprehensive communication technologies
  • Data Analysis and Machine Learning
  • Internet of Things (IoT)

Identifying your Threats

Threats are also factors that exist external to your department or organization. Understanding the Threats that you face will help you understand how those Threats may be mitigated.

An example of a Threats analysis might include the following:

  • New energy and manufacturing technologies
  • Ubiquitous availability of data
  • Malicious actors

Analyzing the Results Obtained in the SWOT Analysis

The next steps after performing the SWOT analysis with your team, is to analyze the results.

The ultimate purpose analyzing your SWOT results is to determine the next steps that you will take in developing your IT Strategy.

You will do this by first determining how you can maximize your Strengths and determine the potential advantage provided by your Opportunities. Then you want to discuss the impact – or potential impact – of the Weaknesses and Threats that you’ve identified.

These analyses should be specific as far as the benefits or risks involved. If cost is a major determinant then you may wish to explore cost estimates here as well. Otherwise costs can be discussed, but won’t be recorded in detail at this point.

In analyzing SWOT results, I might ask the following questions (example answers provided):

Leveraging Your Existing Strengths

How can we leverage our existing Strengths to support and facilitate the Business Strategy going forward?

  • Use the communication network to share ideas and collaborate on implementing new technologies. This would improve communication efficiency and would eliminate the need for “idea sharing” meetings in favor of a more open and fluid exchange of ideas. Utilizing real-time communications can also help to reduce email, increase the rate of message saturation, and decrease attenuation.

Determine the Potential Advantage Provided by Opportunities

What benefit can we derive from the Opportunities that we’ve identified?

  • Technological innovations in infrastructure management (i.e. cloud computing) can be utilized to provide elastic and scalable computing resources for the application servers, allowing the company to outsource many of the management functions of these systems. This would save on costs currently incurred, and allow that capital to be invested in other areas of the company such as Customer Acquisition or Research and Development. It would also allow greater availability for those systems.

Determine the Impact of Current Weaknesses

How are our current Weaknesses limiting our ability to support the Business Strategy?

  • The IT infrastructure is nearly at capacity and lacks a strong option for scalability without incurring step-costs that small expansions may not be able to justify. As a result, if the company wishes to expand, they will face additional financial barriers and incur the burden of planning significant capital expenditures.

Determine the Potential Impact of Identified Threats

What would be the impact if one of our identified Threats is realized?

  • A variety of companies are often targeted by malicious actors. An attack – whether it be a denial of service, a data breach, etc. can have irrevocable repercussions to the company. For example, if customer data is obtained and leaked or sold, the company may face legal repercussions, as well as a damaged reputation as both existing and potential customers question the company’s process of due care.

Decide on One (or More) Area of Priority

Now that you’ve analyzed the outcome of your SWOT analysis, you are ready to move onto the next step.

The next step is to prioritize one of your Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities or Threats that, when addressed, will best support and facilitate your Business Strategy.

This next step will vary by for each company and each unique situation. For example:

  • If your company is technologically progressive then perhaps the Weaknesses and Threats are not significant. In this case, you’ll want to prioritize a Strength or Opportunity that you can leverage or harness to best support your Business Strategy.
  • If your company is not as technologically progressive (I’ve found that most non-tech companies live in this space, don’t feel bad) then you may wish to focus on prioritizing a specific Weakness or Threat that presents a significant liability to your company, and focus on getting it resolved. This is the case that I will use in my examples going forward.

For my example, I will conclude the following:

What is the one Weakness or Threat with the greatest potential for impact on the IT infrastructure?

  • Currently the greatest hindrance to the future of the IT infrastructure is its inability to elastically scale. The current upgrade path requires significant step-costs for even minor infrastructural expansions. Relatedly, the current network is built on a traditional infrastructure, the components of which have relatively short life-spans – in the range of three to five years – before becoming obsolete. Obsolescence is reached either because the technology is no longer competitive, or because the hardware components have reached their end-of-useful-life. In either case, the result from these factors is that the company must continuously invest capital to upgrade and expand the network.

Research Potential Solutions

Now that you’ve identified your priority, you are ready to research potential solutions that could address the weakness or threat (or help you take advantage of your Strength or Opportunity).

It may be useful to note, that if you haven’t seriously considered costs before this point, it would be best to do so now. In researching your solutions, try to get as accurate of a cost estimate as possible. I understand this can sometimes be difficult – sometimes vendors insist on “providing” a sales call – complete with a sales presentation and pitch – before finally giving a cost estimate, and sometimes not even then. If you are a non-profit, educational facility, etc. it will be worth your time to inquire after special reduced pricing.

It is likely that you already have your own established method of researching new technologies, but I will include my approach as well. My personal research strategy is a general-to-specific process. When I have a clear view of the problem in mind, I may reach out to other IT Leaders to see if they’ve experienced a similar problem, and how they solved it. A lot of times a specific product will be recommended (or discouraged against). Once I have a product or solution in mind, I perform a Google search to find related products. I will then do the following:

  • Inspect the vendor website
  • Explore the company’s support options (how easy is it to get someone on the phone if I need help?)
  • Inspect the quality and quantity of documentation that the company maintains.
  • If the company has a dedicated forum, I will also peruse through the posts and see how active the community is
  • I will research the product on technical forums, such as Stack Exchange.
  • I might visit a relevant Subreddit, to see what types of posts users are posting about the product

Only after doing these things will I begin to contact vendors directly.

The output of your research should be two or three viable solutions that directly addresses your priority.

You don’t necessarily need to have a specific vendor or provider in mind at this point, but it’s possible that you will.

One solution as identified in our example might be:

Which solution will best help us to address our priority?

  • A cloud-computing solution would almost completely eliminate the need for hardware administration, and would outsource data center responsibility and accountability to the provider. Because of the provider’s economy of scale, elastic scalability would further increase, allowing dynamic assignment of resources from a pool that, for all practical purposes, is limitless. Availability and reliability would also increase dramatically as cloud-based systems are stored and operated redundantly in locations around the world.

It may be worth bringing your team back into a meeting to discuss your solutions. In this meeting you can present your findings and the solutions that you’ve identified. It is likely that one or more of your technical team members will have additional insight into the solutions, and possible that new solutions may be proposed. If you need to back up a few steps as a result of this meeting, feel free to do so. The important thing is to get it done right.

Recommend a Specific IT solution

Now that you have a priority, and you’ve narrowed down to two or three solutions that will help you with that priority, you are ready to make a final recommendation. This will not be a final recommendation for stakeholders, but rather an internal recommendation to be seen and agreed upon by your team.

The final recommendation for my example could be as follows:

How do I recommend that our priority be addressed?

  • I recommend that the company migrate to a cloud-computing infrastructure as offered by one of the primary providers. Operating from this platform will provide elastically scalable resources, allowing the infrastructure to expand incrementally. It also places much of the burden of security (both digital and physical) and hardware administration on the provider, promises a greater uptime, and near-universal accessibility. Implementing this solution would reduce the cost of IT operations, allowing capital to be invested in other profit centers. It would also reduce the time-cost for IT administrators and allow them to shift their focus from hardware maintenance and upgrades, to technological innovations and implementation.

In my next post, Part 2: Communicating and Coordinating with Stakeholders, we will move forward and discuss how to communicate your IT Strategy with business stakeholders.

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