IT Forum Perspectives

5 questions to ask before launching an IT strategic planning initiative

by Ron Yanosky

Big challenges confront today’s colleges and universities. Board members and senior leaders alike worry that declining enrollments, tight funding, and disruptive new educational models threaten their institutions’ sustainability. In response, institutional agendas are crowded with ambitious strategic goals for student success, enrollment growth, and resource stewardship.

Although IT has a critical role to play in each of these goals, it’s rarely mentioned directly in strategic plans. Leaders and stakeholders may not even recognize their ambitions imply technology needs—which is why IT needs its own strategic planning process. Unpacking the IT implications of institutional strategic goals and determining IT’s own goals and objectives is a major step toward ensuring that IT can help the college or university advance.

But the IT strategic planning process has its risks. Lack of community participation or loss of momentum can lead to a fizzled project and a high-profile embarrassment for IT. Poor alignment with institutional goals may lead IT to set the wrong priorities and fail to support important objectives. To avoid these pitfalls, CIOs and their teams should think through these five preparatory questions when launching their own initiatives:

1. Is it the right time to launch a planning initiative?

Creating an IT strategic plan requires leadership support, community participation, and staff resources. Starting a planning initiative without these elements risks delay and could ultimately set you up for failure.

Before starting your initiative, assess your ability to attract sponsorship and sustain needed effort. If leadership support is lacking or lukewarm, demonstrate how an IT strategic plan will help achieve institutional goals. If disruptive projects or chronic service issues are testing the limits of stakeholder patience, bring these to a resolution before launching. Finally, consider realistically whether key members of the IT leadership team can make the 10-20% time commitment necessary to ensure progress on an IT strategic planning effort.

2. What strategic timeline should we adopt?

The time period your IT strategic plan covers sets limits on the technological and institutional changes the plan will consider. Choose a time frame that suits your college or university’s needs: A shorter period (2-3 years) allows quicker plan completion and is less vulnerable to incorrect assumptions about future trends, while a longer period (4-6 years) better sets the stage for long-term change and for educating the campus about IT’s strategic direction.

3. How should we organize the work?

Don’t expect a single committee to handle all aspects of the planning effort. Separate day-to-day development of the plan to be conducted by an IT strategic planning working group, from review and approval, which should be conducted by a separate steering committee. The working group will do most of the heavy lifting—its members committing 10%-20% of their time to the effort. The steering committee has a lighter commitment, but needs to be available on short notice to resolve deadlocks and provide advice. The steering committee should also review drafts and approve the finished plan.

The working group of 5-8 people may be chaired by the CIO or a direct report and should be at least half senior IT leaders, with invited stakeholders making up the rest. The steering committee should consist of 3-5 members at the VP or AVP level.

4. Do we have clear institutional goals?

Ideally, your school will have clear, up-to-date goals and objectives from which IT can derive its own goals. But all too often, there is no plan, or the one that exists is out of date or otherwise defunct.

If this is the case, build an active process for discovering institutional goals into your IT strategic planning process. Assemble old strategic plans, presidential speeches, task force reports, and other materials that provides clues to institutional goals. Supplement these with interviews with major stakeholders and ask them about their unit strategic goals. Uncovering a set of institutional goals this way will take some extra time, but will pay off with a solid foundation for your IT strategy.

5. What can we learn from our peers?

Ideas to structure and format your IT strategic plan can be found among the many examples available online. The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s 2016 IT strategic plan, besides being visually creative, is worth studying for the way it breaks down its seven top-level imperatives into objectives and related tactics. Ithaca College’s 2015-2020 plan is interesting for its strategic objectives timeline and the periodic updates that report progress. Simon Fraser University’s 2017-2018 plan is organized around a unifying “One I.S.” vision, while the University of Florida’s 2015-2020 plan uses stakeholder quotes to show how IT supports their goals. Studying models like these early in your planning process will help guide your thinking as you uncover your own institution’s campus- and IT-level priorities.

If an IT strategic planning effort is in your future, EAB can help

The EAB IT Forum offers best practice research, step-by-step toolkits, plus expert consultations and onsite presentations and workshops designed to speed and focus your progress.

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