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Modus Operandi

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Does rapid change make planning obsolete? No way. Today strategic planning is more important than ever

Public sector wins hands down

Less pressure means more focus on IT strategic planning.

There is little quantitative data on how much IT strategic planning is taking place in Australia. However, Peter Hind, manager user programs at IDC Australia and a CIO columnist, conducts an annual survey on the IT industry and one of his questions is: how frequently do you upgrade your IT strategic plan? Approximately 20 per cent of respondents say they do not have an IT strategic plan, 60 per cent upgrade it annually and the remainder less frequently, he says.

Hind, though, is of the view that there is not much true strategic planning happening and also thinks that where it is, it tends to be more in the public sector.

"If you update it every year, is it a strategic plan or an operational plan?" Hind says. "I think Â'strategic' has the element of vision about it. I come across few real companies with that sort of focus today, particularly in the commercial world. The sharemarket has really driven a lot of senior executives to short-term tactical decisions that might help at the end of the quarter.

"There are certainly some organisations doing it, and I think they're the ones that are a bit more certain about their future or less in flux, such as government departments that know they're going to be around in some form over a five-year period. In the public sector I also think you need some form of statement of direction because you get called to account more so than in the commercial sector."

Hind thinks the process of strategic planning is healthy in itself as it forces people to periodically consider the future. Otherwise, they get embroiled in the present and submerged in minutiae rather than thinking about where they actually want to go, he says.

Richard Harris, vice president Asia Pacific, Gartner, believes all of the best organisations are exhibiting very good strategic planning and the best plans are those that fit onto one or two pages. However, he agrees that many organisations are not doing it because they are in survival mode and reactive.

"In some cases organisations have said the future's too uncertain so they won't bother [with strategic planning]. They're just sticking to annual budgeting and the like, which I think is an abrogation because the more uncertain the future is, the more difficult it is to define, but also the more vital it is.

"As in business generally, people are also not thinking too far ahead in IT and there is quite a reluctance to commit to major investments that may not deliver for two to three years," Harris says.

Harris thinks IT strategic plans usually cover a time frame of three to five years but thinks they should be revisited every quarter to see if what is there is still appropriate. He also concedes that "strategic" can be a throwaway term, or even a smokescreen for inaction and his own definition of strategic planning is making an irreversible decision, such as deciding to enter or retract from a market.

Like others, Harris agrees that the public sector is leading the way in IT strategic planning. "With government, you have a fair degree of certainty about funding and your future. There is less commercial pressure and you don't always have to react just to short-term political pushes," he says.

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