Revitalizing IT with Strategic Planning

Dawn Roth Lindell, CIO, Western Area Power Administration
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The strategy begins at the top but it sure does not end there. Many organizations now recognize that the chief information officer needs to be seated alongside the chief financial officer and the chief operating officer at the executive table. Information Technology is crucial to every aspect of an organization’s mission. I have heard the statement, “IT is taking over everything.” I have to grin a bit inside at that assertion because it is true. Yes, IT is taking over everything. For many organizations that happened more than a decade ago. Today, IT is literally embedded into everything we do. For example, the simple task of digging a ditch requires a work order submitted through an IT system, which tracks actual performance to the task, enabling better planning and scheduling for the next project.

How do we change the paradigm for leadership across the business, regardless of discipline, to guide our organizations to success? IT leaders must become integrated, strategic partners. We must earn the trust and the mutual respect of our peer leaders at every level. It is not enough for the CIO and fellow “c-suite” leaders to equally share the mission and responsibility of delivering to the external customer base. This must be cascaded through the vice president, manager, supervisor and even individual contributor levels.

IT leaders and professionals must understand business dynamics as well as internal partners in areas of the business IT supports. For the CIO, this means taking the perspective of the chief executive officer with a clear strategic focus on markets served, customer relationship development, operational challenges and support services needs within the organization.

So, given that, IT leaders have a strong obligation to deliver effectively for the organizations and the employees that they serve. Proof of competency is the baseline performance. The baseline is on-time, on-schedule, agile project delivery in partnership with the area of the organization who will primarily use the technology and rapid, thorough problem/incident management. Without this baseline, IT has no credibility at the strategic table.

Beyond this competent delivery of the old definition of IT’s role, IT leaders must be embedded in the business areas that they serve. They need to network across the organization, spend time with peers, leaders at the next level up and staff member’s one level down in other parts of the organization to understand challenges, identify struggles, anticipate future needs and define the technologies needed to handle the diverse spectrum of issues business leaders face. We need to deliver strategic, mission-driven value at every level of the organization. Therefore, we need to build the skills–negotiation, facilitation, public speaking–in our technical staff to enable their success. While IT-types are technology oriented, emotional intelligence still matters. Humans have feelings and managing the complaints, conflicts, and concerns of others can make the difference in getting the dollars needed to add value.

  ​IT leaders have a strong obligation to deliver effectively for the organizations and the employees that they serve. Proof of competency is the baseline performance 

You may be saying to yourself, “We barely have the time and staff to deliver today so how are we supposed to come up with the time to do all of that talking?” Truly, I feel your pain. The amazing IT professionals who work at Western Area Power Administration delivered 110 information or operational technology projects last year on top of maintaining current infrastructure. Nearly all were delivered on-time and on-budget, steadily improving upon delivery over the past three years. Our business partners believe we can deliver and because they are being challenged to “do more with less,” IT requests have grown significantly in the same time frame. Our first IT strategic roadmap identified a backlog of 240 projects. This year, our backlog is more than 600 projects –significantly more than we are staffed and funded to achieve.

How do we choose which projects to work in which order? This is a strategic investment discussion. Our only choice is to prioritize our list together with the leadership of our internal business partners. They need to see and understand our challenges. They need to care about where we invest in technology to move our mission ahead and enhance our delivery to our customers, securely and with high value added. They need to mutually agree on our path forward and then support the IT team in partnership to deliver those on the list. They also need to support the IT team in agreeing not to malign the IT staff for those efforts that we, the organization’s leaders, have decided to delay.

For our highly regulated industry, we use the following framework to help us prioritize annually:

• Our potential project list comes with input from all areas of the organization, including major IT upgrades and newly required cybersecurity projects.

• First, we identify projects that have a legal, regulatory or contractual component. These move to the top of the priority list.

• Next, we look at safety and security and define which of those projects need to be included in each of the next three years, with placeholders for needs over the 10-year plan.

• Finally, we evaluate business cases using metrics for the rest. In the utility industry, we assess return on investment, cost per megawatt and risk mitigation, etc.

In IT, we take the first stab at creating the “strawman” priority list and then run that past governance council to gain their perspectives. Projects get moved up, down and off the list through those discussions. Of course, during the year, projects shift as strategic priorities shift.

In today’s fast-paced world, IT leaders must be responsive to the changing needs. To be responsive, we must know about shifting priorities. By networking well at every level, understanding the internal and external strategic forces at play and by delivering well on our goals, IT leaders make a lasting contribution.

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