We hear it almost every day, IT Strategy, Business Strategy, strategic customer accounts, strategic widgets, etc. Strategy is applied to so many areas and so many things that the word has almost become meaningless. The term “strategy” has become trite because it is used so much with so little understanding.
I decided to build my own research based model around strategy because of all of the buzz and the lack of clarity or simplicity. In other words, how do you really determine if you are being strategic or just using tactics you are calling a strategy?
What I discovered is almost universal confusion of what is tactical and strategic. The reason is simple, strategy is hard–, really, really hard. Also, strategy depends on your position and direction. You can take a more limited and more focused approach to produce tactical advantages, and in turn many refer to a tactical advantage as a strategy. Here is an oversimplification:
- Tactics – execution steps which provide short term wins (short term competitive advantage)
- Strategy – methods, which includes tactics, to prevent opponents from winning (mid-long term barriers to competition)
Tactics are often related to operational effectiveness, or, how well you execute in a given area or context. You gain an advantage for a period of time but your improvements (tactics) can be reproduced by competitors. Strategy is more directly related to market strength. How well you engage, penetrate, and hold markets compared to your competitors.
For an illustration of tactics vs. strategy, hockey player Wayne Gretzky said: “I skate to where the puck is gonna be, not where it has been.” Most hockey players ran to the puck where it was in play, just in time to see it passed to another player. Gretzky would go to where the puck was going to be and was prepared for the puck when it arrived.
A Simple Sports Illustration of Strategy Layers
To understand the strategic perspective, consider a football team. The Quarterback’s strategy is how do I win this game? To the coach, the quarterback’s strategy is a tactic, because his strategy is how do I get my team to win the season. To the owner, winning the season is a tactic because the owner’s strategy is how do I fill the seats, sell advertising, and create a long term winning team that brings in revenue.
The key to successful strategy is in understanding where you are in relation to the broader organization and goals. Then determine YOUR unique strategy.
Do You Have an IT Strategy?
At the risk of offending my CIO and CTO friends at some pretty large companies, I’m not sure there is a genuine “IT Strategy.” Unless you are in a Technology business, I don’t think the term applies.
There IS however an IT Enabled Business Strategy. By ensuring IT is focused on Business Strategy, the IT organization becomes a strategic business asset. By focusing on how IT can help a business to become more competitive now (tactical), by gaining market share, demonstrates IT value. By focusing efforts at creating barriers to competition (holding market share), IT becomes strategic. A business example would be,
Customer acquisition is more like a tactic (an event) while customer retention and selling into your customer base is strategic.
What Does an IT Strategy Look Like?
If your IT organization is able to engage, penetrate, and hold the “internal IT market” within your enterprise, you might have an “IT Strategy.” Like any marketspace, if you are doing this through monopoly power, then you are not strategic but relying on enterprise enforcement to ensure your monopoly position. It is only a matter of time, or changing leadership, that this monopoly will be broken up. Business units across various enterprises are taking their own budgets and bypassing the “IT monopoly” through BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), Cloud, etc.
If you are not operating in a monopoly environment, the way to engage, penetrate, and hold the IT organization’s “market” is to deliver lasting, and hard to duplicate value, to the greater enterprise.
Conclusion on Building a Strategy
This short post only scratches the surface of strategy development. However, if you really want to become strategic you must learn your enterprise’s competitive landscape. If you can’t identify your enterprise’s marketspace competitive pressures, and understand your place in those areas, then real strategy will be elusive if not impossible. In fact, even genuine tactical advantage will be extremely difficult. After all, what are you trying to gain competitive advantage against?
So, if you want to make an SAP, ERP, or other IT project strategic it is important to understand how to design for business value and competitive advantage.