Forming an Information Strategy: Part II – Situational Analysis

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 second 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.

The first article, Part I – General Strategy, explored the nature of strategy, laid some foundations and presented a framework of questions which will need to be answered in order to formulate any general strategy. This chapter, Part II – Situational Analysis, explains how to adapt the first element of this general framework – The Situational Analysis – to creating an Information Strategy. In Part I, I likened formulating an Information Strategy to a journey, Part III – Completing the Strategy sees us reaching the destination by working through the rest of the general framework and showing 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.
 
 
A Recap of the Strategic Framework

LCP

I closed Part I of this series by presenting a set of questions, the answers to which will facilitate the formation of any strategy. These have a geographic / journey theme and are as follows:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Where do we want to be instead and why?
  3. How do we get there, how long will it take and what will it cost?
  4. Will the trip be worth it?
  5. What else can we do along the way?

In this article I will focus on how to answer the first question, Where are we? This is the province of a Situational Analysis. I will now move on from general strategy and begin to be specific about how to develop a Situational Analysis in the context of an overall Information Strategy.

But first a caveat: if the last article was prose-heavy, this one is question-heavy; the reader is warned!
 
 
Where are we? The anatomy of an Information Strategy’s Situational Analysis

The unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy

If we take this question and, instead of aiming to plot our celestial coordinates, look to consider what it would mean in the context of an Information Strategy, then a number of further questions arise. Here are just a few examples of the types of questions that the strategist should investigate, broken down into five areas:

Business-focussed questions

  • What do business people use current information to do?
  • In their opinion, is current information adequate for this task and if not in what ways is it inadequate?
  • Are there any things that business people would like to do with information, but where the figures don’t exist or are not easily accessible?
  • How reliable and trusted is existing information, is it complete, accurate and suitably up-to-date?
  • If there are gaps in information provision, what are these and what is the impact of missing data?
  • How consistent is information provision, are business entities and calculated figures ambiguously labeled and can you get different answers to the same question in different places?
  • Is existing information available at the level that different people need, e.g. by department, country, customer, team or at at a transactional level?
  • Are there areas where business people believe that data is available, but no facilities exist to access this?
  • What is the extent of End User Computing, is this at an appropriate level and, if not, is poor information provision a driver for work in this area?
  • Related to this, are the needs of analytical staff catered for, or are information facilities targeted mostly at management reporting only?
  • How easy do business people view it as being to get changes made to information facilities, or to get access to the sort of ad hoc data sets necessary to support many business processes?
  • What training have business people received, what is the general level of awareness of existing information facilities and how easy is it for people to find what they need?
  • How intuitive are existing information facilities and how well-structured are menus which provide access to these?
  • Is current information provision something that is an indispensable part of getting work done, or at best an afterthought?

Design questions

  • How were existing information facilities created, who designed and built them and what level of business input was involved?
  • What are the key technical design components of the overall information architecture and how do they relate to each other?
  • If there is more than one existing information architecture (e.g. in different geographic locations or different business units), what are the differences between them?
  • How many different tools are used in various layers of the information architecture? E.g.
    • Databases
    • Extract Transform Load tools
    • Multidimensional data stores
    • Reporting and Analysis tools
    • Data Visualisation tools
    • Dashboard tools
    • Tools to provide information to applications or web-portals
  • What has been the role of data modeling in designing and developing information facilities?
  • If there is a target data model for the information facilities, is this fit for purpose and does it match business needs?
  • Has a business glossary been developed in parallel to the design of the information capabilities and if so is this linked to reporting layers?
  • What is the approach to master data and how is this working?

Technical questions

  • What are the key source systems and what are their types, are these integrated with each other in any way?
  • How does data flow between source systems?
  • Is there redundancy of data and can similar datasets in different systems get out of synch with each other, if so which are the master records?
  • How robust are information facilities, do they suffer outages, if so how often and what are the causes?
  • Are any issues experienced in making changes to information facilities, either extended development time, or post-implementation failures?
  • Are there similar issues related to the time taken to fix information facilities when they go wrong?
  • Are various development tools integrated with each other in a way that helps developers and makes code more rigourous?
  • How are errors in input data handled and how robust are information facilities in the face of these challenges?
  • How well-optimised is the regular conversion of data into information?
  • How well do information facilities cope with changes to business entities (e.g. the merger of two customers)?
  • Is the IT infrastructure(s) underpinning information facilities suitable for current data volumes, what about future data volumes?
  • Is there a need for redundancy in the IT infrastructure supporting information facilities, if so, how is this delivered?
  • Are suitable arrangements in place for disaster recovery?

Process questions

  • Is there an overall development methodology applied to the creation of information facilities?[3]
  • If so, is it adhered to and is it fit for purpose?
  • What controls are applied to the development of new code and data structures?
  • How are requests for new facilities estimated and prioritised?
  • How do business requirements get translated into what developers actually do and is this process working?
  • Is the level, content and completeness of documentation suitable, is it up-to-date and readily accessible to all team members?
  • What is the approach to testing new information facilities?
  • Are there any formal arrangements for Data Governance and any initiatives to drive improvements in data quality?
  • How are day-to-day support and operational matters dealt with and by whom?

Information Team questions

  • Is there a single Information Team or many, if many, how do they collaborate and share best practice?
  • What is the demand for work required of the existing team(s) and how does this relate to their capacity for delivery?
  • What are the skills of current team members and how do these complement each other?
  • Are there any obvious skill gaps or important missing roles?
  • How do information people relate to other parts of IT and to their business colleagues?
  • How is the information team(s) viewed by their stakeholders in terms of capability, knowledge and attitude?

 
An Approach to Geolocation

It's good to talk. I was going to go with a picture of the late Bob Hoskins, but figured that this might not resonate outside of my native UK.

So that’s a long list of questions[4], to add to the list: what is the best way of answering them? Of course it may be that there is existing documentation which can help in some areas, however the majority of questions are going to be answered via the expedient of talking to people. While this may appear to be a simple approach, if these discussions are going to result in an accurate and relevant Situational Analysis, then how to proceed needs to be thought about up-front and work needs to be properly structured.

Business conversations

A challenge here is the range and number of people[5]. It is of course crucial to start with the people who consume information. These discussions would ideally allow the strategist to get a feeling for what different business people do and how they do it. This would cover their products/services, the markets that they operate in and the competitive landscape they face. With some idea of these matters established, the next item is their needs for information and how well these are met at present. Together feedback in these areas will begin to help to shape answers to some of the business-focussed questions referenced above (and to provide pointers to guide investigations in other areas). However it is not as simple an equation as:

Talk to Business People = Answer all Business-focussed Questions

The feedback from different people will not be identical, variations may be driven by their personal experience, how long they have been at the company and what part of its operations they work in. Different people will also approach their work in different ways, some will want to be very numerically focussed in decision-making, others will rely more on experience and relationships. Also even getting information out of people in the first place is a skill in itself; it is a capital mistake for even the best analyst to theorise before they have data[6].

This heterogeneity means that one challenge in writing the business-focussed component of a Situational Analysis within an overall Information Strategy is sifting through the different feedback looking for items which people agree upon, or patterns in what people said and the frequency with which different people made similar points. This work is non-trivial and there is no real substitute for experience. However, one thing that I would suggest can help is to formally document discussions with business people. This has a number of advantages, such as being able to run this past them to check the accuracy and completeness of your notes[7] and being able to defend any findings as based on actual fact. However, documenting meetings also facilitates the analysis and synthesis process described above. These meeting notes can be read and re-read (or shared between a number of people collectively engaged in the strategy formulation process) and – when draft findings have been developed – these can be compared to the original source material to ensure consistency and completeness.

IT conversations

I preferred Father Ted (or the first series of Black Books) myself; can't think where the inspiration for these characters came from.

Depending on circumstances, talking to business people can often be the largest activity and will do most to formulate proposals that will appear in other parts of the Information Strategy. However the other types of questions also need to be considered and parallel discussions with general IT people are a prerequisite. An objective here is for the strategist to understand (and perhaps document) the overall IT landscape and how this flows into current information capabilities. Such a review can also help to identify mismatches between business aspirations and system capabilities; there may be a desire to report on data which is captured nowhere in the organisation for example.

The final tranche of discussions need to be with the information professionals who have built the current information landscape (assuming that they are still at the company, if not then the people to target are those who maintain information facilities). There can sometimes be an element of defensiveness to be overcome in such discussions, but equally no one will have a better idea about the challenges with existing information provision than the people who deal with this area day in and day out. It is worth taking the time to understand their thoughts and opinions. With both of these groups of IT people, formally documented notes and/or schematics are just as valuable as with the business people and for the same reasons.

Rinse and Repeat

The above conversations have been described sequentially, but some element of them will probably be in parallel. Equally the process is likely to be somewhat iterative. It is perhaps a good idea to meet with a subset of business people first, draw some very preliminary conclusions from these discussions and then hold some initial meetings with various IT people to both gather more information and potentially kick the tyres on your embryonic findings. Sometimes after having done a lot of business interviews, it is also worth circling back to the first cohort both to ask some different questions based on later feedback and also to validate the findings which you are hopefully beginning to refine by now.

Of course a danger here is that you could spend an essentially limitless time engaging with people and not ever landing your Situational Analysis; in particular person A may suggest what a good idea it would be for you to also meet with person B and person C (and so on exponentially). The best way to guard against this is time-boxing. Give your self a deadline, perhaps arrange for a presentation of an initial Situational Analysis to an audience at a point in the not-so-distance future. This will help to focus your efforts. Of course mentioning a presentation, or at least some sort of abridged Situational Analysis, brings up the idea of how to summarise the detailed information that you have uncovered through the process described above. This is the subject of the final section of this article.
 
 
In Summary

Sigma

I will talk further about how to summarise findings and recommendations in Part III, for now I wanted to focus on just two aspects of this. First a mechanism to begin to identify areas of concern and second a simple visual way to present the key elements of an information-focussed Situational Analysis in a relatively simple exhibit.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff

To an extent, sifting through large amounts of feedback from a number of people is one way in which good IT professionals earn their money. Again experience is the most valuable tool to apply in this situation. However, I would suggest some intermediate steps would also be useful here both to the novice and the seasoned professional. If you have extensive primary material from your discussions with a variety of people and have begun to discern some common themes through this process, then – rather than trying to progress immediately to an overall summary – I would recommend writing notes around each of these common themes as a good place to start. These notes may be only for your own purposes, or they may be something that you also later choose to circulate as additional information; if you take the latter approach, then bear the eventual audience in mind while writing. Probably while you are composing these intermediate-level notes a number of things will happen. First it may occur to you that some sections could be split to more precisely target the issues. Equally other sections may overlap somewhat and could benefit from being merged. Also you may come to realise that you have overlooked some areas and need to address these.

Whatever else is happening, this approach is likely to give your subconscious some time to chew over the material in parallel. It is for this reason that sometimes the strategist will wake at night with an insight that had previously eluded them. Whether or not the subconscious contributes this dramatically, this rather messy and organic process will leave you with a number of paragraphs (or maybe pages) on a handful of themes. This can then form the basis of the more summary exhibit which I describe in the next section; namely a scorecard.

An Information Provision Scorecard

Information provision scorecard (click to view a larger version in a new tab)

Of course a scorecard about the state of information provision approaches levels of self-reference that Douglas R Hofstadter[8] would be proud of. I would suggest that such a scorecard could be devised by thinking about each of the common themes that have arisen, considering each of the areas of questioning described above (business, design, technical, process and team), or perhaps a combination of both. The example scorecard which I provide above uses the areas of questions as its intermediate level. These are each split out into a number of sub-categories (these will vary from situation to situation and hence I have not attempted to provide actual sub-category names). A score can be allocated (based on your research) to each of these on some scale (the example uses a 5 point one) and these base figures can be rolled up to get a score for each of the intermediate categories. These can then be further summarised to give a single, overall score [9].

While a data visualisation such as the one presented here may be a good way to present overall findings, it is important that this can be tied back to the notes that have been compiled during the analysis. Sometimes such scores will be challenged and it is important that they are based in fact and can thus be defended.
 
 
Next steps

Next steps

Of course your scorecard, or overall Situational Analysis, could tell you that all is well. If this is the case, then our work here may be done[10]. If however the Situational Analysis reveals areas where improvements can be made, or if there is a desire to move the organisation forward in a way that requires changes to information provision, then thought must be given to either what can be done to remediate problems or what is necessary to seize opportunities; most often a mixture of both. Considering these questions will be the subject of the final article in this series, Forming an Information Strategy: Part III – Completing the Strategy.
 


 
Addendum

When I published the first part of this series, I received an interesting comment from Gary Nuttall, Head of Business Intelligence at Chaucer Syndicates (you can view Gary’s profile on LinkedIn and he posts as @gpn01 on Twitter). I reproduce an extract from this verbatim below:

[When considering questions such as “Where are we?”] one thing I’d add, which for smaller organisations may not be relevant, is to consider who the “we” is (are?). For a multinational it can be worth scoping out whether the strategy is for the legal entity or group of companies, does it include the ultimate parent, etc. It can also help in determining the culture of the enterprise too which will help to shape the size, depth and span of the strategy too – for some companies a two pager is more than enough for others a 200 pager would be considered more appropriate.

I think that this is a valuable additional perspective and I thank Gary for providing this insightful and helpful feedback.
 

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]
 
There are a whole raft of sub-questions here and I don’t propose to be exhaustive in this article.
 
[4]
 
In practice its at best a representative subset of the questions that would need to be answered to assemble a robust situational analysis.
 
[5]
 
To get some perspective on the potential range of business people it is necessary to engage in such a process, again see the aforementioned Developing an international BI strategy.
 
[6]
 
With apologies to Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation.
 
[7]
 
It is not atypical for this approach to lead to people coming up with new observations based on reviewing your meeting notes. This is a happy outcome.
 
[8]
 
B.T.L. - An eternal golden braid (with apologies to Douglas R Hofstadter

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid has been referenced a number of times on this site (see above from New Adventures in Wi-Fi – Track 3: LinkedIn), but I think that this is the first time that I have explicitly acknowledged its influence.

 
[9]
 
You can try to be cute here and weight scores before rolling them up. In practice this is seldom helpful and can give the impression that the precision of scoring is higher than can ever actually be the case. Judgement also needs to be exercised in determining which graphic to use to best represent a rolled up score as these will seldom precisely equal the fractions selected; quarters in this example. The strategist should think about whether a rounded-up or rounded-down summary score is more representative of reality as pure arithmetic may not suffice in all cases.
 
[10]
 
There remains the possibility that the current situation is well-aligned with current business practices, but will have problems supporting future ones. In this case perhaps a situational analysis is less useful, unless this is comparing to some desired future state (of which more in the next chapter).

 

 

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