Your best-made plans

Strategic planning - love it or hate it - is part of your job. Once a year, or maybe as often as every quarter, you are called to predict the future and think big. Do this well and you will increase your company's competitive advantage, bringing yourself and your team the accolades (and budgets) you deserve.

That, of course, is easier said than done. You know the basics - making sure your plan relates to business objectives; keeping your technology picks within justifiable budgets; periodically assessing the validity of your plan against current business conditions. But beyond these, what distinguishes truly exceptional IT strategic planners from the rest?

"A great strategic planner needs to be a bit of a visionary, in terms of understanding what's possible - then have a good business aptitude to translate that into what can accrue a desired business outcome," says Bob Rapp, who as CIO is the chief IT strategist for low-cost air carrier Frontier Airlines in the US.

For instance, when Frontier established an aggressive business objective of increasing online bookings, Rapp knew moving to an open, scalable Web architecture would help pave the way. A more usable, flexible and scalable site would assist the airline in nudging online bookings from 30 percent of revenue today to 50 percent by next year and ultimately to 60 percent, he says. With that in mind, Rapp chose Sun's Java Platform, Enterprise Edition, the Solaris 10 operating system and Opteron-based Sun Fire servers, and began rolling out advanced functionality on the site.

Heads-up knowledge

No plan will succeed if it doesn't take into account what's going on with the business at a day-to-day operational level. But truly knowing is different from simply thinking you know. Keeping your fingers on the pulse of the business requires developing a network of internal contacts - dozens of people across all corporate levels and lines of business, says Dennis Smith, first vice president and manager of infrastructure engineering at global financial services company Mellon Financial. "You just can't focus in on executives or you're going to end up missing major points. It's important to spread out and talk to folks" all over the company, he emphasizes.

By keeping in touch with people in Mellon's Private Wealth Management line of business, for example, Smith says he got early notice that the unit was working on a new CRM application. He knew this would be a dense application and could suffer performance hits across the WAN. The time-tested strategy was adding bandwidth, he says. But because he'd been talking to his external sources as well - vendors and peers within the financial services industry - he realized that another technology option, namely wide-area file services (WAFS), could work instead, he says.

"This was a matter of us looking at the technology and saying, 'Hey, this market is starting to become much more mature so let's alter our plan and look at these [WAFS] appliances,'" he says.

Mellon tested a few WAFS products, locked into a vendor and began testing it with two of the roughly 40 Private Wealth Management branches. "Users have been ecstatic," Smith says, and Mellon is working on rolling out the WAFS product to each of the unit's branch offices. Plus, he adds, Mellon now has a product capable of not just optimizing WAN performance but also centralizing customer data - a big push in today's highly regulated financial services firms.

Studying up on vendors and their technology plans is an important job for strategic planners, too, says Barry Strasnick, CIO at CitiStreet, a global insurance benefits provider in Quincy, Mass. "We want to be comfortable that the entity offering us the technology has a viable business model for that product," he says.

He cites two examples in which CitiStreet's get-to-know-your-vendor process has pushed IT strategists to select products against the tide. In the first case, they chose the open source JBoss Application Server over a higher-cost, better-known product - BEA Systems' WebLogic. In the second instance, they picked a relatively no-name WAN acceleration product, from Swan Labs (since acquired by F5 Networks), over other approaches from larger vendors. "It made sense that WAN acceleration, including full encryption, using excellent software on cost-effective Linux appliances, would be a viable long-term capability," he says.

Cutting your losses

One critical, but often overlooked, job of strategic planners is knowing when to ditch the plan - or even the technology. This can sometimes be the best option if users aren't embracing the technology your plan says would be perfect; otherwise you're taking on an unacceptable level of risk, Frontier's Rapp says. "You may have done a strategic plan in partnership with a business unit. But . . . if you detect user disinterest, it's best to depart the project," he says.

Likewise, being a great strategic planner means being able to distinguish between the desired and the doable, Strasnick says. "Just because a project is important and desirable doesn't mean it's realistic," he says. "We definitely have a can-do attitude within CitiStreet IT, but we also make sure it is a realistic and prudent one for the company in total."

Strasnick favors an approach he calls aggressive evolution, which means no IT strategic plan should require "one monstrous, long-running project to achieve success." Instead, he suggests, the plan should incorporate a series of six-month deliverables.

Lastly, Strasnick says, strategic planners never rest. Days set aside specifically for strategic planning are important, but you really should never stop strategizing, he says, adding, "that's what driving to and from work, nights and weekends are for - part of being a senior executive is that you are contemplating how to improve your business outside of work hours more often than not."

That's certainly true at Mellon. Because of his hectic schedule, Smith says he's gotten in the habit of having vendors come in at 5 p.m. to talk technology over a working dinner. This he usually does three times a week, he says. "I need their input because I maintain a three- to five-year plan for each of the technology products within my area - in terms of what version, which features, which product sets, what vendors. I update the plan yearly," he says.

Clearly, your role as strategic planner has no limits. And mixing up the right amount of vision and execution can turn your plans into gold.

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