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3 Keys to Creating an IT Strategic Plan

An information technology strategic plan provides tech workers with guidance and ensures that all personnel are working in alignment with the university mission. Here are three things to keep in mind when formulating an IT strategy.

Woe is the IT shop operating without a strategic plan. Staffers may be tasked with supporting the overall university mission, but without a specific strategy they are working with little or no guidance. On these campuses unofficial strategic plans often hatch organically — or perhaps haphazardly — as tech workers do what comes naturally and makes sense to them, said Christopher Eagle, IT strategist and enterprise architect at the University of Michigan. A formal IT strategic plan helps ensure all personnel are moving in the same direction.

Formulating an IT strategic plan all starts with identifying an institution's goals and objectives, aligning IT with that mission and providing all university personnel with the tools necessary to fulfill it. In other words, "Looking at what the institution wants to accomplish and then identifying the ways in which your technology services, operations and or solutions align with that," said Mario Berry, associate vice chancellor for enterprise applications, Lone Star College System (TX). "You begin with the institution's strategic plan and then you develop your plan and items specifically geared to supporting that or being in alignment with that."

Darcy Turner, project director with the Office of the CIO at the University of Michigan, used the school's mission as a jumping off point when she worked as a member of the IT strategy and planning team to create Michigan's first IT strategy in 2012. The team identified, understood and clarified the mission, then determined how technology could enable it. "We see the mission of the university as separate. IT doesn't drive the business or the mission of the university. We're here to enable it."

1) The Process Is the Product

Mark Hoit, vice chancellor and CIO at North Carolina State University, said the process of creating a strategic plan is as critical as the document the process yields. "The strategic plan is not about what you write, but about the process used to create it," he asserted. When charged with creating a strategic plan, one must: consider the real business of education; solicit input from and collaborate with stakeholders; and secure buy-in from those who perform the functions. Once this is accomplished, IT must convince stakeholders that it has the tools and knowledge to improve their processes. "It should not be just a bunch of IT people creating a plan. It's the people who need to get the work done and the IT people working together figuring out how to make that enabled," said Hoit.
Darcy agrees. When the Michigan IT strategy and planning team developed its first IT strategy, it quickly realized that the conversations it was having with the stakeholders were almost more important than the final deliverable. The act of creating the plan allowed the team to cultivate those partnerships necessary to ensure buy-in.

When Michigan's IT strategy team created its most recent plan, which was released in April, its success grew out of the way in which it organized IT governance, said Cathy Curley, executive director for strategy and planning in the Office of the CIO. "We have senior faculty leaders who represent the mission across the university. We have someone who represents teaching and learning across all the schools and colleges. It's not a job, but it's a role they fill," said Curley. This approach helped the team understand teaching and learning's strategic trajectory. Then it partnered with these domain stewards and discussed with them technology's role in enabling and supporting the department's strategy.   

To ensure all stakeholders on the NC State campus had the opportunity to voice their opinion about the contents of the university's IT strategic plan, Hoit created a steering team, which managed the creation of the plan but did not have a hand in creating it. The team solicited input from individuals across the entire campus. The 500-plus individuals in IT, administration and those with business control all had a voice.

The team gathered information using a variety of methods like focus groups, surveys and a gallery walk. The steering team organized the information into themes and tied them to university goals. An outside consultant then linked the themes to the goals and created a table so everyone could see that they had not been ignored.

2) Engage the Crowd

In The Wisdom of Crowds, business journalist James Surowiecki posited the idea that large groups of people are smarter than an elite few. The University of Michigan's IT strategy and planning team applied this theory to develop its IT strategic plan. "(We had) literally hundreds of meetings, with IT folks, non-IT folks, faculty, staff, teachers and students trying to get that input," said Eagle. Then the team created a Google Doc and invited anyone to share ideas in the document. Ultimately 200 individuals typed in what became the final document.

But conversations with stakeholders and crowdsourcing are not enough. It's important to get the strategy down on paper so those involved can execute on the plan, said Turner. The physical document becomes a valuable artifact when the team shares it with the University of Michigan community.  

To make that final document valid, it's crucial that key players buy into the goals and strategy and know their roles. At NC State Hoit created an implementation team, narrowed his plan down to six important implementations and appointed a leader for each. "[Three of the six] were led by non-IT people. By the time you get into some of these implementations, it's more about process change and culture than the actual technology," said Hoit.

IT at the University of Michigan is decentralized, with more than 70 IT departments across the campus. Eagle didn't view the release of Michigan's plan as an implementation so much as a way to reduce the randomness that often occurs in the absence of a plan. "If you get everybody thinking the same way and we can provide some guidance, then [people will think more strategically]," said Eagle.

3) Brevity Rules

Three or four years ago, IT departments typically created tactical strategic plans complete with procedures, appendices and indexes. Today, IT strategic plans may contain nothing more than a summarization of the core values and strategies that align with organizational values. At one point Berry's strategic plan at Lone Star was about 30 pages. Now it's two pages of the most crucial elements.

The IT strategic plan that Michigan created in 2012 was 44 pages long. When the team set out to create its latest plan, input from high-level governance groups suggested that the team present just a handful of goals. Sharpening the focus allowed the team to be bolder and the plan to be more actionable and visionary. "We wanted it to be easily communicated, easily understandable, easy to remember … five pages or less," said Turner.

Hoit's plan at NC State is just eight pages with a two-page summary. "Nobody's going to read anything longer than that," he said.

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