Making Information Strategy Real – Can You Do It?

I’ve found myself talking about Information Strategy a lot lately.  I’m not a strategy consultant – I’m a search nerd focused on building great software products. So I’ve been surprised at how much positive feedback I’ve received on this subject and at what I’ve learned recently.

I started helping people with search strategy because it was often the missing ingredient; lack of an effective strategy just got in the way, and I saw the aftermath in the form of failed projects, confused people, and information chaos. People in that situation couldn’t get full benefit from my products (no matter how fabulous those products were). To get them to success, I had to help them with their search strategy first. When I worked at FAST search, we evolved this help into a Search Business Consulting practice. At BA Insight, we now conduct “SearchPoint Strategy Sessions” and partner up with consulting firms that could help our customers get their strategy aligned with their business.

Working on strategy was kind of coming home, since my father was a business professor and taught long-range planning and business strategy at the US Military Academy at West Point.  When he was alive, we’d joke about the books I’d coauthored on search and the books he’d coauthored on strategy – and talk about their intersection.  Although I gravitate to software development and never have done information strategy consulting full-time, I gained a real appreciation for the field. I also learned how ineffective most academic and consulting approaches are – they tend to be complex, overwhelm people, and result in strategies that aren’t useful in the real world, aren’t adopted, and are abandoned.

At SP24 about a year ago, I did a session called “The Search Immaturity Cycle, and How to Create a Search Strategy” (You can watch it on YouTube if you’d like). The feedback opened my eyes to just how many organizations are at sea. Gartner reports that less than 10 percent of today’s enterprises have a true information strategy, and that management thinking at an “information as strategy” level is still evolving.

What gets in the way? In my opinion – complexity, lack of understanding, and fear.

Simple Recipes for Creating a Strategy

At the Ignite conference just a month ago I did a session called “Information Management Strategy with Office 365 in Mind” (You can check it out on Channel 9). Microsoft asked me to do this session and to help people see an opportunity to increase their own impact and visibility through creating a pragmatic information strategy.  I was frankly a bit nervous about it because the subject is less technical and more ‘soft skills’ oriented than my usual sessions.  And my ‘recipe’ (a ‘keep it simple’ little rubric with the acronym ASPIRE) overlooks a lot of things – deliberately so.

I was blown away by the response – the room was packed, and I had people stopping me in the hall to talk about how they were inspired to use some of the new information from Ignite to spark a conversation about information strategy at their workplace. I’ve already heard from quite a few folks that they have moved a project forward to create or update their information strategy.

Several people told me that the fact that I was NOT a strategy consultant was an advantage. I’m doing this to remove an obstacle – lack of strategy gets in the way people getting full benefit from our products (and in the way of lots of other things too). I don’t seek billable hours, angle for publishable research results, or try to find differentiated IP in this area. I just want to help people do the simplest thing that works.

This can be quite simple. To give you a flavor, “Align” (the A in ASPIRE) is as basic as understanding the three generic business drivers, then observing what is in place in your organization and aligning to it. These business drivers, sometimes called ‘value disciplines’ (operational excellence, product leadership, and customer intimacy) have been around for a long time (click for a short summary of them). They spring from work Michael Porter (the ‘ founder of modern strategy’) did in the early 80’s. Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema modified them a bit and used them as the basis of their research as published in their 1993 book The Discipline of Market Leaders, and they’ve stood the test of time. This is not new by any stretch of the imagination – but it’s simple, is new to most IT folks, and gives them a really useful lens and lingo.

Last week, I did a session at the NYC SharePoint User Group on the same topic (Get my slides on Slideshare). As with my Ignite talk, there were some folks who wanted to live in the technology details (where my heart lies, too), and there were also many positive reactions. What made the session particularly special was that there were people outside of IT in the room.  Alignment happens so much more easily with ‘the business’ and ‘IT’ in the same room. This also made for great SharePint discussions around the changing role of IT and also about communication skills.

Can every IT professional drive information strategy?

In ASPIRE, S stands for Support (getting executive support) and P for Publish (clearly and often). The key to these is communication. Fairly often I get the question (or statement) that many IT folks don’t have the communication skills needed, and the implication that only a handful of IT folks can ever be involved in information strategy. This is where I differ. In fact, I was on a panel just this afternoon where this came up and I had to pick a fight.

I believe that anyone can make a contribution to strategy if they really want to.  Communication skills can be learned. Techniques for strategy planning can be learned.  If you are successful in IT, you have the intellectual horsepower you need.  The essential requirement is desire.  With that comes an orientation towards strategic thinking, and the persistence to overcome the barriers in the way.

Call me a pollyanna, but I have seen lots of cases of IT folks learning how to influence strategy and how to really engage with and align with the business.  One of my friends is a voice teacher whose motto is that anyone can learn to sing.  I’ve seen her work with people who sound truly horrid at the start. They may not become opera singers, but they always end up sounding good.  She reports that actual “tone deafness” is incredibly rare and that the mentality of “I can’t sing, I’m tone deaf” is the main obstacle.  There is something analogous here.

Even if you are not one of the people who “own” information strategy, it’s good to learn to think about information strategy and it’s good to think strategically. The role of IT is changing so quickly, and the move to the cloud is accelerating and creating new threats as well as new opportunities – even a little awareness of strategy development can go a long way. And if the majority of IT folks really take the “Information as an Asset” mindset to heart, it will make a huge difference.

There are many great resources out there for those interested in developing information strategy. To name a few: Gartner has a number of great reports about information strategy and offers an “information strategy cookbook” to subscribers; AIIM has a strong resource center including a tutorial on developing a strategy; and Mike 2.0 (“open source methodology”) has a strategy solution.

There are also many good consulting firms and practices that offer help in developing information strategy. I would encourage you, though, to keep it simple. In the talks I’ve referenced above I walk through ASPIRE quickly and include some examples and tips about good places to start. Let me know if you find these useful.

I talked in a previous article (“Search and the Value Gap“) about the issue that “demand for software solutions and functionality often exceeds the IT budget (by up to 500%)”.  If most organizations have no real information strategy as Gartner reports, it’s no wonder that low adoption, failed projects, and chaos are so common – people are on the wrong side of the curve.   It’s not so hard to change this, and there’s a lot of important new technologies and trends to spark the conversation and get the process going.

What do you think?  Please share your observations, stories, and challenges.

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