by Helen Beckett

How to build a technology strategy

Jun 10, 20126 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

The CIO Panel Prof Simon Orebi Gann, director, Next Generation Data, former CIO of BA and senior IT executive at Marks & Spencer David Jack, David Jack, CIO, The Trainline, former director of engineering at Betfair Dr Peter Chadha, Chief Technology Officer at The Office Group, former director, Technology Consulting at BDO

Technology strategy is tricky territory because it is both intimately tied to the broader aims of business and conversely executed in the nitty gritty of technical detail.

Technologists tied up in day-to-day operations may be lulled into thinking concentrating on point solutions constitutes a  strategy.

In contrast to fluffy thinking shaped by acronyms and buzzwords, tech strategy calls for clarity and boldness, recommends Professor Simon Orebi Gann, former CIO of BA and designer of LIFFE Connect, a global automated trading platform.

He cites the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus as an inspiration for chiefs tasked with developing tech strategy.

“No one crossed a chasm in two small leaps”.

Seasoned CIOs know that technology and business strategies are intimately linked and this can make unpicking the technology piece more difficult: technology is both a servant of IT enabling efficient delivery of business goals, and an innovative force for business.

To act as if they are divorced would result in tech strategy hitting road blocks and business missing out on commercial opportunities.

Happily, if you go with the assumption that both need to be developed in tandem, our experts believe it is possible to separate out thinking about tech strategy. Our panellists give their expert opinions.

Put it on paper The technology strategy is likely to be the focus for a tech company, or a subset or interchangeable with the IT strategy, in most large organisations.

In SMBs, there’s often no strategy beyond a plan that’s in someone’s head. Formalising it and putting it into a document not only gives it more gravitas but crucially tests the thinking behind it.

Bringing everything together in one place encourages reflection and the necessary challenge to ensure the content is truly In short, this gestation period of documenting a plan can elevate it to a strategy. (PC)

Process, process, process The strategy or plan doesn’t have to follow a particular process, but there must be a process.

Otherwise, the danger is that technology will be retrofitted to what you do, and then you end up calling it a strategy.

Think about where you want to go and then select the best technologies to let you get there. (DJ)

Think like a town planner Early on, you’ll have to formulate a clear, high level architecture and it’s a bit like designing a town.

It’s no use worrying about the colour of the bricks or even whether a house should be on a site without first sorting out the big pieces and how they fit together.

With towns, a lot of this concerns scale and capacity: how many schools, medical care, shops and social hubs do we need to support a population?

It translates in the technology world to working out what and where the reference data, major transactions and transactions flows are in the business. (SOG)

Design the architecture Once the high level design is in place, appropriate system elements can be bolted into place.

If it’s a manufacturing concern, 90 per cent of activities may be supported by a SAP system in vanilla format, say.

Or if it’s an innovative business, the CIO may need to build in a clutch of R&D systems.

For an Internet retailer, a stock management system may be the core component.

Putting these key pieces and their supporting systems onto a blank piece of paper with linkages in between creates your architecture. (SOG)

Make commercial calls Once you have this organised, at a lower level you can start to think about numbers of servers, where they are hosted, who hosts them, and preferences for product.

Choices may include whether to build your own software or buy it in, whether to run your own data centres or to outsource their management.

Many of these decisions are commercial and may be dictated by business priorities.

Increasingly nowadays companies prioritise their capital for their own core business and use third party data centres, where there should also be cost advantages from economies of scale. (SOG)

Not a greenfield site? It’s likely that any CIO of a large organisation will have inherited a legacy strategy rather than the luxury of a greenfield site to build a tech strategy from scratch.

However, any CIO with an ambitious transformation remit can reach for that blank piece of paper.

Take the above steps to define where you want to be and to create your ideal high-level scheme and lower level architecture. After that it’s a case of working out how to get there. (SOG)

The tagline way It’s possible to just come up with a clever tagline. Citrix perfected this approach with its anyplace-anytime-anywhere approach, which everyone in the company got right away.

If some product enhancement was suggested that didn’t comply with this motto, they’d demand why we were proposing to spend 20 per cent of our budget on it. The danger is that it can lead to over simplification, and if you’re not a product company, it can sound particularly weak. (DJ)

The cheat’s strategy This is useful for when you have so much stuff in place already, that strategising is merely a way of articulating what you’ve got.

Start with what you have and explain why this is supporting the business.

It’s an analytical process and the underlying principle is it’s the only thing you’ve got so you might as well stick with it.

There’s a health warning though: don’t get succoured into thinking this was a reflective strategy. (DJ)

Do a rolling review Whichever above approach suits your business and purse, you need to do a regular review.

Many government departments work in five or even seven-year plans but that’s too far out for most commercial concerns.

Who could have predicted the predominance of the tablet PC five years ago and the trend for BYO (bring your own)?

Tech companies will review every few months but for other companies, an annual, rolling review will provide the necessary assessment, and opportunity to tweak or plug tech gaps. (PC)

Pic: janetmckcc2.0