How important is IT in defining a business strategy?

It was a simple enough question…: “What is an IT strategy and what does it achieve?,” asked Kevin Howe-Patterson on this forum. “How do you know you’ve got a good IT strategy?”

Simple it may be, but it prompted a fierce debate. “One that completely supports the strategic goals of the business, bearing in mind also that the strategic goals could in themselves change in light of the possibilities that IT brings to the table”, said Mike Briercliffe. “A proactive approach to how the business is able to get the best use of its technology,” added Oli Rhys.

The crux of the question is really where does the line sit between IT objectives and business objectives. As Paul Oliver observed: “IT strategy has to become a component of the overall business strategy. It needs to move past this separate focus and meld with the business.” John Booth agreed: “You can never have an IT strategy that exists without due reference and alignment with the business.”

If IT’s objective is to meet the strategic business needs of the organisation, how can you determine its success? “The acid test,” suggested Abhradeep Das, “is when it seamlessly integrates into business processes and increases overall efficiency.”

So the role of the IT department is to ensure consistency and cohesion guaranteeing that its IT infrastructure is fit for purpose – not just now, but in the years ahead. The IT strategy should show what is technically possible during the period of the business plan and help shape that plan to make the most of the opportunities IT will provide.

Paul Oliver added: “Just as finance has to plan long range with debt and HR with succession planning, IT has to take that broader view of where the technology industry is going and merge that into the strategy.”

An IT strategy is “a business strategy that marshals IT resources,” agreed Malcolm McKinnon. “Good ones help the business achieve its goals better, faster, and/or cheaper than without that marshalling.”

Hussein Bahgat went one step further. What IT teams need to do, he said, was take the business strategy and translate that into IT needs. Increasingly, to meet its aims and objectives, a business needs high-powered, peak performing technology with resilience and scale.

“The problem is that software is designed to create silos, each application lives in its own little world, isolated from the rest of the enterprise,” said Peter Johnston. “They give the nod to the programs next to them, but no thought to where they fit in the overall scheme of things. 
They are a solution for a single problem, totally ignoring the bigger picture.” And therefore the role of a robust IT strategy is to ensure the business has the capacity and kit to deliver holistic and integrated solutions for all the business needs.

So central is IT to a business meeting its targets, that Carlo Severino suggested the debate shouldn’t be how can IT strategies fit in to the business strategy, but vice-versa. “It is difficult to think of any business strategy that does not involve information and/or technology. Each strategy has some IT component to it; more often a critical and key component.

“IT is no longer simply the concern of IT people. Availability, reliability and scalability remain the top priority for IT teams but the real value is created when IT does not just support a business strategy but drives it. So IT strategy is business strategy, or has business strategy now become the IT strategy?

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