Crafting an IT Strategy to Stand the Test of Time

Innovative technologies are great and may find a place in your IT environment, but insurers need to craft IT strategies around core values and operational principles and strong functional and behavioral foundations.

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Over many years there has been an abundance of columns, articles, books, conferences, and presentations on the best ways to create and execute an IT strategy for an organization.  Many of the ideas reflected whatever was in vogue with regard to technology, management practices, and market trends.  As a result, over time, many IT strategies were created to address what was new and exciting: things such as distributed networks and computing, the introduction of the internet, new development languages and methodologies, modern business processes for insurers and agencies, and many other macro trends, were all part of the mix.  It’s also true that those IT strategies came and went, as they were only relevant for as long as the newest thing was relevant.  On reflection, this seems like a lot strategy work over and over again.

Of course, new and exciting innovations can a valid part of any comprehensive IT strategy.  But the benefits they may or may not bring are outcomes of any strategy, and should never themselves be the basis or core of any IT strategy that persists over time. And IT strategies, properly created and maintained, should persist over time.

How long a strategy should endure will be different for every organization. However, as a rule of thumb, if the IT strategy changes every year or two, there’s a problem. That much variability in an IT strategy sends the message that the IT goals and objectives are a moving target—and business executives don’t like moving targets when it comes to the kinds of capabilities and functionalities they’re counting on their IT divisions to deliver.  Over time IT strategy variability erodes the business’s confidence in IT leads to a lack of credibility.

Guiding Principles, Core Values

There is another way.  Any well-conceived IT strategy should be based on a foundation of the guiding principles and core values of the IT division. This may sound a little esoteric at first glance, but done well it can pay big dividends over time for any IT organization and leadership team.

For example, the guiding principles of any IT organization should include things like the amount of technology risk that will be tolerated when dealing with any new technology, the amount of resource and effort that IT will consistently devote to newer research and development versus maintaining the core functions of the organization, or how IT will consistently interact with internal and external customers across time. There are many more examples of course, but the idea is that the guiding principles should focus on what IT will do consistently, irrespective of new innovations and technologies.

Likewise, the core values of any IT division should describe how IT behaves consistently across time when engaging in the pursuit of its guiding principles. Good examples of this are descriptions of the actual behaviors that IT resources are expected to exhibit when dealing with each other and with anybody else connected to the organization. These can include such things as the amount of time on average that IT is expected to spend with their business customers, the kinds of follow ups that will be part of any meeting or conversation, the way in which IT resources are to engage with outside solution providers and other technology partners, and even the manner in which the IT leadership team will communicate and collaborate with executive colleagues and other interested stakeholders.

Now if this all sounds like a lot of focus on the softer side of the IT equation for not enough gain, it is anything but. Embedding the aforementioned elements in any comprehensive IT strategy is the first step in creating an IT strategy that can stand the test of time.  It’s also the first step in building long-term IT credibility and trust with those who work in IT, those in the business functions who deal with IT, and those external resources that deal with IT.

Functional and Behavioral Foundation

It’s a part of a pretty simple formula, really, and one that addresses an essential human need. Despite what is popularly portrayed nowadays, people are not always enamored with change, and most people don’t like surprises, at least in the workplace. Creating a strong functional and behavioral foundation for IT addresses these concerns. Once in place, anybody who has anything to do with IT will know how things will work in the course of getting things done—today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow—irrespective of the rapidly changing innovations and trends in technology and the process change such changes inevitably drive.

It also is an effective way of reducing, and hopefully eliminating, a lot of collateral time and talk around what IT will focus on for the organization.  If the foundation is effectively established, any new initiative or technology can and should be vetted through the prism of the principles and values established, and that helps with decisions, priorities, and resources. Such an approach is also completely in synch with the current, trendy cry for innovation in the industry, including the use of the cloud, or big data, or any of a number of emerging business technology enablers. The approach is in synch because it places any business technology innovation under consideration in its proper place in the overall context of the organization: as a tool to help accomplish the strategic goals and objectives of the organization. This effectively eliminates the possibility of embracing something new and exciting for its own sake, and instead requires the organization to consider anything on the basis of how it fits into the IT strategy, and into the larger organizational strategy.

Now that may not sound particularly exciting or innovative, but it actually is, and for all the right reasons. Once the strategic foundations have been established, there’s no reason to revisit them, at least in the short term.  That frees up a lot of time for IT resources and their business colleagues to focus on the kinds of innovations and initiatives that can really make a difference at the organization. It’s surprising how agile and responsive a company can be when their people are not squabbling over the whats, whys, and hows of what IT brings to the table and how they go about doing it. It also makes subsequent revisions of the IT strategic plan much more manageable and approachable.  Going forward, IT planning is completely focused on thinking about the kinds of initiatives that will enable the organization to achieve its strategic business goals and objectives, without having to think about the kind of IT division it wants be.  It has already figured that out.

So while it may not quite be an IT strategy approach for the ages, done well, it will certainly carry an IT strategy down the road a fair bit.

Frank Petersmark // Frank Petersmark, PhD, is associate VP of Research & Consulting at research and advisory firm Novarica. Petersmark formerly served as CIO at Amerisure, and as the CIO advocate at X by 2, a software architecture firm focused on the insurance industry.

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