Forming an Information Strategy: Part I – General Strategy

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

Maybe we could do with some better information, but how to go about getting it? Hmm...

This article is the first of three which address how to formulate an Information Strategy. I have written a number of other articles which touch on this subject[1] and have also spoken about the topic[2]. However I realised that I had never posted an in-depth review of this important area. This series of articles seeks to remedy this omission.

Part I – General Strategy explores the nature of strategy, lays some foundations and presents a framework of questions which will need to be answered in order to form any general strategy. Part II – Situational Analysis adapts the first part of this general framework – The Situational Analysis – to the task of starting to form an Information Strategy. The final chapter, Part III – Completing the Strategy, rounds out this process by working through the rest of the general framework and explaining how this can be used to produce a fully-formed Information Strategy.

As with all of my other articles, this essay is not intended as a recipe for success, a set of instructions which – if slavishly followed – will guarantee the desired outcome. Instead the reader is invited to view the following as a set of observations based on what I have learnt during a career in which the development of both Information Strategies and technology strategies in general have played a major role.
 
 
What is a Strategy?

A more optimal strategy would probably have been to beware the Ides of March

This would seem to be a relatively easy question to answer as the word is used (more likely over-used) in many areas of human endeavour and in business in particular. Let’s start by seeing if we can reach a consensus by the power of Google:

Wikipedia Strategy (from Greek στρατηγία stratēgia, “art of troop leader; office of general, command, generalship”) is a high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. [and also later in the same article] Max McKeown (2011) argues that “strategy is about shaping the future” and is the human attempt to get to “desirable ends with available means”.
The Oxford English Dictionary[3] /stráttiji/ n. 1 the art of war. 2 a the management of an army or armies in a campaign. b the art of moving troops, ships, aircraft, etc. into favourable positions (cf. TACTICS). c an instance of this or a plan formed according to it. 3 a plan of action or policy in business or politics etc. (economic strategy) [F stratégie f. Gk strātegia generalship f. stratēgeos]
Meta-entry […] a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.
“time to develop a coherent economic strategy” […]
The Business Dictionary […] a method or plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal or solution to a problem. […]

So – assuming we decide, in the context of this blog, that the objective is probably not to better order military affairs, or to teach infantry men and women to write MDX – some sort of loose consensus emerges from the various definitions above. It seems that a strategy is something which seeks to influence the future, to bring about some conditions or cause an event, neither of which would manifest themselves without some action being taken[4]. I am going to adopt the definition that a strategy is a method to achieve some future objective; or at least to make the realisation of this aim more likely. This means that a strategy implies change. If the situation is now X then after the strategy has been successfully enacted then the situation will then be Y[5].
 
 
A Metaphor for Strategy

Plotting a Strategy

The role of change in strategy leads me to think about strategy formulation in the following way[6]. I think of situation X (the current one) as a place on a map. Then situation Y (the desired one) is a second place on the same map. We are at X and we want to get to Y, we have a starting point and a destination, an origin and a terminus. The shortest distance between two points is of course a straight line[7]. However a straight line between between X and Y may not exist (there could be a lake in between with no method to traverse this), or it might not be the quickest route (if the line passes over an intervening mountain, which could instead be more quickly circumnavigated). In general there may be more than one route between X and Y and each may have its advantages and disadvantages. I tend to think of strategy formation as the process by which the best (or, if this is all that is achievable, least bad) route is established.

Of course a challenge here is that – outside the realms of mathematics (or indeed SatNav) – there may not be an optimum route and equally no optimum strategy. Even if an optimum strategy does exist, the strategist may not have enough information[8] to hand to discern this. Also, while effecting change is the objective of a strategy, this aim may itself be impacted by change; to employ our metaphor of travel, change to the destination, or to the territory in between. This may mean that the route (the strategy) must be adjusted, or in some cases wholly abandoned in favour of a different approach. Strategy formulation has some scientific-like qualities and I will focus on some of these shortly. However for the reasons just put forward (and indeed others we will examine later) elements of the strategy formation process can sometimes be more of an art form.

Of course another problem could be that you don’t have a map!

Having introduced a geographic quality to describing strategy formation, I’ll leverage this analogy[9] for the rest of the article. However, first a slight detour to establish the credentials of your guide to the terrain of Information Strategy; namely me. Any readers who are already familiar with my work are encouraged to scroll past the next section.
 
 
So what do I know about Information Strategies anyway?

Résumé

I have worked in IT for over quarter of a century with much of that related to turning data into information. Indeed one of my early tasks during my first job at a software house was to help design and develop the automated Balance Sheet and Profit and Loss statements provided as part of the company’s flagship product. These took the transactions entered into the company’s General Ledger system and assembled them into sensible Financial statements, which could be sliced and diced[10] by period, cost centre or project code. However, my full initiation to the related areas of Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing was not until the beginning of 2000, when I was asked to establish a Management Information function for a pan-European insurance organisation. This means that I don’t reach my 15-year BI/DW milestone until New Year (actually probably some point in the middle of January 2015)[11].

Having both developed and executed an Information Strategy for the European part of this company, I extended both of these processes to encompass Latin America. I then developed a broader Information Strategy which included all of their International operations. It is gratifying to note that this strategy still guides information provision at this organisation to this day. After this, I went on to shape Information Strategies for other companies in sectors such as Manufacturing, Retail and back to Reinsurance / Insurance again. In each of these cases, I either saw the execution of these strategies through to at least their first delivery, or the programmes of work that I crafted were then executed by the teams that I had built.

My teams also won a couple of awards for this work along the way.
 
 
The Questions driving Strategy Formation

Questions

There are many good resources available in printed form and on-line for those who want to understand various approaches to general strategy formulation. For readers who are interested in strategy outside of a technology context and specifically outside of the area of Information Strategy, then Google is your friend. For anyone who is still with us, then while I would not claim to be an all-purpose strategy guru, I think that it is worth starting by presenting some general questions that pertain to the area of strategy formation. I am going to cast these in the shape of the geographic / journey metaphor that I developed above. Adopting this framework, any general strategy will have to answer the following questions:

  1. Where are we?
    Answering this question is the province of a Situational Analysis. Such a study will highlight what is good about the current situation as well as what needs to be changed.
     
  2. Where do we want to be instead and why?
    Here it is useful to consider two things: first Drivers for Change (which may emerge from the Situational Analysis); second a further question, What does good look like? This area is thus a mixture of what is wrong with the current situation and what would be good about the one proposed as the objective of the strategy[12].
     
  3. How do we get there, how long will it take and what will it cost?
    Thinking of the most perfect of destinations is going to be of little use if it costs too much to get there or the journey time is prohibitive. Here the strategist needs to get more concrete and consider realistic estimates of time and money.
     
  4. Will the trip be worth it?
    There is a relation here to areas covered under the earlier bullet points, but answering this question will normally require some sort of cost/benefit analysis. In describing what good looks like, many potential benefits may be articulated, here there is a need to quantify them as best as is possible.
     
  5. What else can we do along the way?
    Some might quibble at the inclusion of this item. However I think that the metaphor of a journey lends itself to considering what tactical work can help buttress the central activities of the strategy.

The framing of the above in terms pertinent to a journey may not be familiar[13], but I think that it is useful. This metaphor also has the benefit of alluding to what is inevitably the case with each of strategy development, strategy execution and the most worthwhile of journeys; they seldom happen overnight.

Having laid some general foundations, the next article in this series, Part II, will begin to be more specific and consider how these questions can be applied to forming the first element an Information Strategy, a Situational Analysis.
 

Forming an Information Strategy
I – General Strategy II – Situational Analysis III – Completing the Strategy

 
Notes

 
[1]
 
These include (in chronological order):

 
[2]
 
IRM European Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence Conference
– November 2012
 
[3]
 
Actually The Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus (1997). Ink on cellulose pulp edition (this format used to be quite popular once upon a time). Also still available from antiquarian booksellers.
 
[4]
 
Yes Minister
Here I assume that waiting around for something to happen, when it was going to happen anyway, is not a strategic approach; “that would be to mistake lethargy for strategy” (© Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Yes Minister – The Writing on the Wall)
 
[5]
 
I suppose the assumption here is that situation Y is preferable to situation X; at least from the point of view of the strategist.
 
[6]
 
Amongst many other articles on this site, see The confluence of BI and change management for an explicit link between change and Business Intelligence.
 
[7]
 
Assuming Euclidean Geometry, if not then maybe try this instead.
 
[8]
 
Here I am using the term generally rather than in the sense of information generated by systems, which even today remains mostly numeric; albeit that other forms of data have streaked ahead of dowdy old numbers some time ago. Numeric data tends to be somewhat easier to transform into information than non-numeric; at least for now.
 
[9]
 
Perhaps it is worth introducing a note of caution about the over-extension of analogies here – I do this in an earlier article bearing the same name.
 
[10]
 
To this day, I have a compulsion to write “dice and slice” as opposed to “slice and dice”, despite the latter being a more logical sequence of events when approaching – say – a butternut squash.
 
[11]
 
I am looking forward to my engraved TDWI decanter immensely.
 
[12]
 
Sometimes the current situation is so bad that simply addressing its shortcomings is enough work for a strategy to consider. More often a strategy will look to ad value beyond just remediating current issues.
 
[13]
 
Though I can hardly claim to be the first person to come up with this metaphor.

 

 

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