Is your information strategy going to succeed?

Research from Forbes, McKinsey, and Kotter shows worldwide an average of 70% of strategic initiatives fail.....

Is your information strategy going to succeed?

Why would a global luxury fashion chain use a company in New Zealand to build their information strategy?

NOW Consulting is a New Zealand based business that has grown a global centre of excellence in data management, based on simple principles – get close to the business, deliver early and often, and keep it practical and fresh.  This approach works brilliantly for the delivery of information strategy, and enables customers to be successful in achieving both short term and long term goals.

NOW Consulting New Zealand was recently working with a client in Hong Kong to help them develop an information strategy.  In the planning for the work, the client shared two previous documents delivered by other consultancies, from 2014 and 2015 respectively.  At the initial kick off meeting, the project sponsor lamented "we've told the business twice now that we would do something, we really need to do something this time."

Unfortunately that was not the first time we have seen information strategies that failed to launch. More to the point, most organisations we speak with have a strategy of some kind, but most are not making good progress in achieving it. Frequently the strategy is a document that cost a great deal to produce, that ends up filed away and never referenced again.

Many organisations embark on information strategies, however research from Forbes, McKinsey, and Kotter shows worldwide an average of 70% of strategic initiatives fail.  The failure is typically seen as the strategy moves from planning to implementation, when more and more people become involved, and the process becomes bogged down by organisational change impediments.

The approach to implement a strategy must be pragmatic, incremental, comprehensive, and companywide.  To implement a successful information strategy, we've found that there are a few key criteria that it should be compared against, to determine whether it will succeed or not.

A successful strategy is not a project plan.  

Most strategies include some kind of road map, usually with a time-frame of 2-5 years, some form of technology, governance and information work streams, and a few ambitious milestones.  While your strategy should include an execution plan, don't think of the plan in the strategy as the primary outcome.  Ticking away milestones will not necessarily lead to a change in company culture, more effective information delivery, and better decision making.  The strategy should focus on the capabilities needed to manage and leverage information effectively.  Yes, it should include technology, information, and governance, but it should also encompass staff capabilities, user adoption, and business outcomes.  Failing to engage users, and achieve actual change in the behaviour of business staff, will limit if not entirely curtail your efforts to become data driven.

A successful strategy should focus on change.

A focus on changes to business processes and practices, with measurable impacts to revenue or costs is critical.  If your strategy ends with the implementation of a new data warehouse, it's too technically focused, and too IT led.  Data warehouses, data quality, data security, and data governance - these are all essential components of a good strategy, but they are the means to an ends, not the end goal itself.  You need to look beyond the data-centric disciplines to the wider company benefits and outcomes.  If you don't link each of the data disciplines to tangible, measurable business changes, you're not going to achieve true organisational buy-in or benefit. Every single deliverable or goal in the strategy should be mapped to a measurable business benefit (not an IT benefit).  If you can't, it may not have sufficient benefit to be worthwhile.  

As an example, all companies have data quality problems, but not all companies are losing money or customers because of them.  In some organisations it is an annoyance, but not a show-stopper.  So is it worth hiring or appointing a network of data stewards across the company?  The cost of running a data stewardship capability may greatly exceed the costs of poor data quality.  This is not to say data quality isn't important, rather ensure you can measure the current cost of poor data quality, and will be able to measure the benefit of improving it.  

It’s not essential to tie the strategy to the top goals or strategic objectives of the business (although if you can, that’s great), merely to solve real business problems – focus on achievable goals with realisable results that have tangible benefits, but don’t try to solve world hunger, world peace and climate change all at once.

A successful strategy is not led by the CIO, CTO or IT team.  

The CIO and IT department will be essential to delivering a successful strategy, as without them the systems and technology changes needed will not be achieved - but too often the responsibility for information management is left to IT to drive, and falls victim to other competing priorities managed by business unit executives.  For the strategy to achieve business change and culture change, it needs to be run by leaders with skin in the game - if your strategy has tangible business benefits, then the executives who will reap the benefits need to drive the strategy.  A good strategy will require changes to business processes and capabilities, and these are well beyond the scope of IT to drive.

A successful strategy is not about technology alone

A successful strategy does not end, or begin, with the purchase and deployment of software or hardware.  A data warehouse is not the end result of a successful strategy - it is an enabler for the strategy.  The same is true for an operational data store, an analytics tool set, a Hadoop cluster, a data lake, or any other flavour of technology.  These platforms are tools to support capability.  In the same way that buying a hammer, nails and timber will not immediately result in a house, nor will buying a database and filling it with data result in a new wave of insights and revelations about your business.  The strategy needs to ensure that people are engaged, that business practices that consume and produce data are included, and that information workers can access, understand and effectively use the new platforms available to them.

Ultimately, the success of the strategy is linked to the scope of the strategy.  A good strategy should be comprehensive, covering multiple aspects of information use and management, but should also be pragmatic, and focus on things that can be changed in an incremental approach.  Grand plans seldom result in grand outcomes.  Most major achievements are the result of a hundred minor victories. Build a strategy that decomposes the elements of the information, processes and people involved into achievable steps, then put your efforts into making each step succeed.

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