In this article I look at some key IS strategic planning concepts, review
representative approaches to the formulation of IS strategy and make some
observations on relevance to firms operating in offshore financial centres
such as the Channel Islands. The concepts and methods outlined here can
do much to help businesses in this environment to use technology to obtain
business advantage. The proof of this is to be found in those offshore
organisations that have deployed technology to tip the balance in their
favour. Yet many organisations remain captive to inappropriate approaches
and ideas. This may have been forced upon the firm by a parent that does
not recognise the distinct nature and needs of the subsidiary's business.
Or gaps in awareness of the ways in which technology can be relevant to
the business may be the root cause. Either way, many firms may still find
significant opportunities to improve performance through effective use
IS strategic planning fundamentals
I start from the assumption that the aim of IT strategic planning is
to align IT resources with wider business goals. More than this, opportunities
can sometimes be found for IT to create fundamentally new businesses (so
called business scope redefinition). This possibility had
been registered years before ecommerce gained popular recognition. Celebrated
examples such as the introduction of the SABRE flight booking system which,
at one point, overtook operating aircraft as key profit earner for American
Airlines or the American Hospital Supplies case illustrate this. These
cases overcome any doubts of the priority business drivers must take over
technical considerations in creating an effective IS strategy. Developing
sound IS strategy thus calls for business insight and creativity and is
supported by a grasp of the technological possibilities. For this reason,
whilst one would not expect to find guaranteed recipes for success in
the literature on IS strategy, but some well established pointers into
what works and where to focus attention can certainly be found.
Not all businesses are the same!
The figure presents one scheme for classification of industries and businesses
in relation to the strategic significance of IT for that industry. Developed
several years ago, it might look different now that customer expectations
have been changed so significantly by the popularisation of the Internet.
The approach to IT strategic planning will differ depending on each business
units location within a grid such as this. This perspective can
help a firm to debate the appropriate attitude to IT (especially when
examples of how IT has been deployed in other businesses are used to open
up debate). However, judgements of the strategic relevance of IT are themselves
the major challenge in a dynamic business environment. A gifted business
strategist might see opportunities where others see none and indeed plans
which assume IT plays only a minor role should be challenged periodically
to avoid self fulfilling prophecies.
Integrated IT Strategy
Where IT might be expected to have the potential to give strategic advantage
it would perhaps be appropriate to aim for an integrated strategy formulation
process. Here IT is considered simultaneously with other aspects by a
team conversant with both the business and IT. The team might look for
ways to derive competitive advantage from IT as strategy is being created.
Any of the well-known techniques for strategy development could be used
to provide a stimulus and structure for this essentially creative activity.
When IT is not Strategic
In contrast, firms that do not anticipate strategic advantage is to be
derived from information resources might develop business strategy without
such intense consideration of IT. Responsibility for IT strategy might
be assigned to a senior manager capable of following in the wake of business
strategy to ensure priorities are aligned with business direction. Cost
constraints and analysis of benefits (including non financial benefits)
will likely be decisive in such a scenario.
These simple alternatives can be further refined into generic IT philosophies
which characterise many of the de facto businesses attitudes to IT:
- Scarce Resource: IT costs tightly controlled; IT investment decisions
based on ROI.
- Leading Edge: High R&D investment to develop state of the art systems.
- Necessary Evil: IT for basic purposes only if there is no alternative.
- Centrally Planned: IT and business needs integrated by high level decision
- Monopoly: Internal IT group is the sole source of IT services, it aims
to satisfy demand within reasonable costs.
- Free Market: Users assess their IT needs and select source of supply.
The appropriateness of each of these generic attitudes depends on the
strategic importance of IT to the business today and in future. The chart
below summarises how well these attitudes align in each case:
Example Strategy Formulation Frameworks
Some examples of IT strategic planning methodologies or guidelines illustrate
how these principles and conceptual foundations are put into practice.
Example 1: Duffy & Assad
Duffy and Assad set out a framework that is particularly simple to follow
(see references at the end of this article).
Information Systems Orientation
According to Duffy & Assad it is rare management team that
is sufficiently up to date on IT and sufficiently creative to relate it
to the organisations strategic needs. If information is a
strategic resource, regular management workshops are appropriate to stay
abreast of IT and IS thinking and creatively explore strategic opportunities
Issue analysis focuses on the broader context, IT impact on operations,
finance, human resources must be considered.
IS / Corporate Linkage
Duffy & Assad suggest linkage is achieved by
- IS manager participation in the corporate strategy process (if information
- involving key managers in the IS strategy process
- study of corporate business plans for IS implications
Notably Duffy and Assad refer to critical success factors in the context
of identifying key information needs of executives to monitor each CSF.
This is consistent with Rockarts original work where he states the
CSF method centres, rather, on the information needs for management control.
Duffy and Assad supplement CSFs with separate consideration of business
processes to identify transaction-processing needs. The latter will be
prioritised alongside MIS needs derived from the CSFs.
Identify Strategic IS Options
This task is undertaken by a team with industry knowledge, management
experience and IS knowledge. Duffy & Assad recommend the team include
individuals inclined to challenge perceptual boundaries. This
of course assumes that suitable individuals are available and willing
to contribute. A danger exists in some organisational cultures that such
individuals will be marginalised.
In Duffy & Assads model, candidate systems are prioritised
by the management group which reduces subjectivity and political
issues [and improves] communications and awareness of organisation wide
issues. The factors to be considered might include cost, ROI, risk,
urgency, ease of implementation, natural precedence, synergistic factors,
market place image and survival. The management group selects the factors
that they consider relevant, score each candidate system (including new
applications and enhancements to existing applications) and tabulate results
as a vehicle for structuring the discussion.
Relevance in the Offshore Context
Duffy and Assad provide a cogent and practical framework. Its age
is apparent in the limited reference to business process redesign or knowledge
management but it does succeed in its goal of providing approaches
to help managers think more effectively about IS related issues.
Example 2: Information Engineering
My second illustration is a methodology with an Information Engineering
heritage. In this case the planning phase focuses on developing
a strategic information system vision that supports the enterprises business
plans and objectives and comprises eight stages. Mechanisms are
offered to integrate the planning with business strategy, through collection
of information on goals, objectives and CSFs in the enterprise strategy
analysis phase. Emphasis is placed on integration of users in the
Techniques for Linking Business and IT Strategy
This approach assumes CASE tools will be employed which provide facilities
to associate key knowledge base objects. Examples of associations
that are especially important in terms of linking IT strategy and business
- goal to objective, objective to CSF
- critical assumption to goal or objective or CSF
- process to objective or CSF or opportunity / problem
- opportunity / problem to objective or information need (information needs
are derived from both business strategy and operational requirements)
- information need to goal or objective or CSF
entity to information need
These associations provide insight but are insufficient in themselves.
The methodology is not prescriptive about techniques for assessing relative
strategic priorities of individual projects. Senior management views on
business investment criteria are taken into account which permits an element
of sensitivity to the organisations culture and management style.
Despite the detailed analysis decisions ultimately rest on qualitative
judgements of relative benefits (and more pedestrian project dependencies).
Relevance in the Offshore Context
A planning exercise which painstakingly articulated these associations
(supported by sophisticated CASE tools) would inevitably develop understanding
of how IS strategy is woven into the fabric of the business strategy.
The rigour and consistency of the methodology is its great strength.
However the very sophistication of the approach creates a danger of hiding
the wood for the trees unless implemented by highly experienced and competent
personnel. Regrettably a key constraint in the typical medium size organisation,
and especially in offshore firms, is a shortage of such skills.
In summary, Information Engineering rigour is only partially relevant,
building software will always be hard. There is inherently no silver
bullet . A simpler approach is needed by organisations of the size
and nature found offshore. I outline my suggestions for a subset of this
apparatus suited to such circumstances at the end of this paper.
Example 3: ICAEW IT Faculty
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)
has issued guidance on developing IT strategy. This modest 22 page booklet
is especially significant as one might expect that material issued by
this profession to be attuned with the culture of offshore financial services
Notably, the ICAEW booklet is couched in moderate, low key style and
is sympathetic to the aversion of language which is alien to the world
of financial services. Nonetheless, many themes and issues already described
are restated in this low key language. The following extracts convey the
substance of the booklet:
- For best results a business must have a [business plan] within
which it can operate... (Although terminology differs this corresponds
to the business strategy in sources discussed).
- IT may be used to advance, or even make possible, business objectives.
(examples are provided)
- IT strategy should be prepared in parallel with, or as an extension
of, business strategy
- There should be an examination of activities (possibly brainstorming)
to determine the extent to which technology may enhance or reduce cost
- In respect of IT organisation, applications and data, technology infrastructure
planning care must be taken to avoid following fashionable infrastructure
solutions such as client server without a full analysis
- developing...an IT strategy is as much about people as...technology...culture,
working practices and training needs must be an integral part...
- communication and updating and monitoring processes are required.
Relevance to the Offshore Context
Whilst no detailed guidance or techniques are provided the booklet provides
a simple statement of many principles elaborated earlier. It would be
especially valuable as a briefing for managers with no prior exposure
to these ideas but it is insufficient to fulfil the role of a simplified
methodology. Finally, credit must be given for encouraging review of competitors
and involving customers.
Applying the Frameworks
The literature on traditional IS strategy still has much
to offer firms in the offshore financial services milieu. However, the
practical challenges present such obstacles that firms often fail to reap
substantial benefits. A pragmatic approach that guaranties the easy wins
is needed. This must tread a path somewhere between the rigour of Information
Engineering and the obscurity of vague statements of intent.
A prerequisite will be broad commitment from key players. Understanding
of, and support for, IS strategic planning among senior management has
perhaps been the Achilles heel for many firms. This might best be overcome
by facilitated which develop awareness of the strategic role of IT (and
to the cost of IT failures!) using examples drawn from similar businesses.
Handled carefully this would establish a shared understanding that would
enable IS strategic planning to be effectively undertaken.
Planning might conform to the spirit of an Information Engineering approach
but must be capable of being quickly grasped by senior management. This
group will usually need to be closely involved because of the specialised
nature of offshore businesses and restricted pool of IS management skills
at that level. An appropriate level of sophistication for a typical offshore
firm might consist of:
- a clear and concise articulation of business strategy developed with
senior management and including briefings and workshops to facilitate
search for IT opportunities among the partners. This would need to go
some way beyond the current business plans to elucidate implied strategic
directions. The challenge of this step suggest that this is fraught with
risk. Defining the market and identifying competitors is a vital element
of the strategic process, different answers may lead to radically different
strategies. However, without this step IS resources stand little chance
of being effectively marshalled.
- an explicit description of the information needs implied by the strategy
(analysed by an IS strategy team and validated with senior management)
- an explicit statement of the key operation information needs and processes
(based on interviews with line management)
Once the team who are tasked with developing the IS strategy have internalised
this, analysis might proceed to identify information systems (both automated
and manual) supporting each business area and data management strategy.
At a minimum, this might result in an entity model for the firm, a high
level process model a CRUD matrix and organisational overview.
Information Engineering inspired approaches include development of architectures
and principles within the IS planning (see earlier panel). In my view,
if approached with an appreciation of the business risks of, for example,
obsolete or proprietary technology, decisions on these aspects can be
undertaken without extensive senior management involvement. In a firm
of the size encountered offshore principles would emphasize preference
for mainstream technologies and packaged software. The order of magnitude
increase in costs for custom development are unlikely to be justifiable
for such firms (I make this assertion recognising that truly innovative
and strategic use of IT, being ground breaking, typically requires custom
development). A best of breed package also provides the window of opportunity
to redesign business processes around the package and introduce best practices
in this way. The increased flexibility and customisability features of
the current generation of packages further reinforce the attractiveness
of this route for such firms.
Toward the end of IS strategy development, terms of reference for subsequent
projects may be drafted. The links of the projects to our business strategy
could be explicitly stated (probably in narrative format) as a key element
of these terms. These would be validated with senior management to provide
a final check that the strategy is on target (and, equally important,
has the required support). This step would incorporate a prioritisation
debate with senior management as the most satisfactory route to gauging
the importance of each Information System to the business strategy or
the relative importance of the element of the business strategy addressed.
An experienced facilitator can use formal techniques that draw out these
judgements. However, even a semi-structured, round table discussion may
be sufficient given the uncertainties of the business judgements on which
the priorities rest.
Finally, there is a good case for exploiting new technologies or packaged
applications (including vertical market packages) earlier than competitors
as a guiding principle in the situation of the typical offshore firm.
Alliances with competitors to develop custom systems may however provide
some scope to gain limited competitive advantage.
I have looked at how the principles of IS strategic planning, and particularly
the spirit of Information Engineering, can be adapted to the circumstances
of the typical offshore business. Whilst many businesses could gain from
these established approaches some caveats must be noted. In particular:
The increasing pace of change in the business environment is reducing
attention given to longer term planning disciplines and increasing the
importance of factoring in more flexibility in the planning. This can
be built in as an explicit principle for IS planning. The alternative
is to continue to operate with disjointed, ad hoc and incompatible systems
which have constrained many businesses in past years (so called legacy
Whilst there is much that can be done to improve strategic planning the
challenge is in implementation. Even when plans are well founded and appropriate
few firms see these plans consistently though to implementation. But there
are techniques and approaches that can help, especially the greater sophistication
in organisational change management that has emerged in the last decade.
The traditional approaches we have discussed here do have a wider horizon
that Information Systems. But the greatest advances in the 1990s
have been in the alignment of business processes and organisational design,
underpinned by the enabling role of technology. A planning process which
integrates these aspects requires even greater sophistication and cross
Sources & Recommended Reading
Mintzberg, H, 1994, The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,
Harvard Business Review, January-February discusses the contrast between
strategic planning and strategic thinking, and the creativity essential
for the latter which can be impeded by formal technique.
Duffy, N and M Assad, 1989, Information Management, Cape Town, Oxford,
pp 75-82 provides the framework discussed in this article.
Rockart, J, 1979, Chief Executives define their own data needs,
Harvard Business Review, March-April. This article introduced the world
to CSFs and is repays reading 20 years later.
Schach, S, 1990, Software Engineering, Richard D Irwin Inc. chapter 2
discusses the limitations of Information Engineering in an academic but
Faculty of Information Technology of the Institute of Chartered Accountants
in England and Wales, 1995, Developing your IT Strategy, Chartech Publishers,
Cash, J, F McFarlan and J Mckenney, 1992, Corporate Information Systems
Management, 3rd edition. A rich source of material and well worth careful
Parsons, G L, 1983, Fitting Information Systems to the Corporate Needs:
The Linking Strategy, HBS class discussion note. Do not be misled by its
age, this paper still has much to offer the enterprise of the third millennium.