Beware the quick and the dumb

Applying the word "strategy" to a plan does not make it a good plan

This week’s In Depth section is a look at business intelligence. Now, I’m going to resist the temptation to compare BI to the famous oxymoron “military intelligence”, but when you’ve been around, and worked in a few different organisations, you quickly realise that being smart and being smart quickly is pretty hard to achieve.

In IT, we talk a lot about concepts such as intelligence, agility, strategy and so forth, without really recognising how hard they are to do in practice. Applying the word “strategy” to a plan does not make it a good plan. Being able to react quickly, but doing all the wrong things when you do, can also be a tad counter-productive.

One of the main reasons why organisations struggle, in my experience, is because of imperfect communications.

There are some bright signs emerging from the business intelligence vendors that communications, or collaboration, is being put front and centre. They are doing all sorts of things with instant messaging, for instance, as well as other technologies (see page 18) to improve communications and understanding.

But even the best tools won’t do you much good unless you are really clear about what you’re trying to achieve. This can be aggravated by all sorts of other developments, such as restructuring, staff reduction and turnover, “juniorisation”, and so forth.

In amongst all this organisational and cultural change we can forget why we exist as organisations; what our mission is. We can lose people who have a real in-depth understanding of how our organisations function. These people are frequently the bearers of bad news. They are often the first to recognise when they the organisation isn’t functioning.

They are not necessarily, and certainly not exclusively, near the top of the organisational chart. They are also sometimes disparaged as “process” people. By constantly reminding management how things are done, how they were done and, in their opinion, how they should be done, they can begin to seem obstructive, even old-fashioned, until, a year or two and many bad experiences later, you find they were right.

Across both the business and government sectors you can see organisations, and even entire sectors, that seem to have lost something of their sense of purpose. Sometimes this can be a leadership issue. Sometimes it’s about changing policy or stakeholder expectations.

In tertiary education, for instance, there has always been a tension between teaching (okay, pedagogy, if you’ll pardon my French) and research. But now, while that tension remains, new tensions have emerged between these twin traditional functions and new ones such as vocational training and commercial activity.

Ask many academics now whether their mission is to research, train, teach or make money and they’d have to answer “all four”.

Many (usually unsuccessful) private-sector organisations are similarly schizophrenic. A US leisure equipment and boating company bought a highly focused New Zealand company called Navman a couple of years ago. It probably seemed a good idea at the time, but the result was no happy marriage. Navman is now on the block again.

IT managers, I suspect, are more attuned to problems of organisational focus than many others. After all, every night they kneel down beside their beds, put their hands together, close their eyes and start mumbling: “I must align IT with the business. I must align IT with the business …”

But for all managers it can be easy to overlook the big picture. It’s easy to forget to measure, or to misread, how new initiatives contribute to or impact on the organisation’s mission, its core activities and its values.

Tools, such as business intelligence systems, can and will help focused organisations or divisions achieve and compete. Maintaining that focus, though, is the key to long-term success.

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