When it comes to IT, do you find most of your time and energy is spent just keeping the lights on and fixing things when they break?
If the answer is “yes”, you’re not alone.
In a forever changing digital age, designing and maintaining a forward thinking and agile IT strategy can seem like trying to hit a moving target, especially if you don’t have in-house expertise.
It needn’t be. In this How To guide, we share our experiences and advice over 6 steps to help you set about creating an IT strategy that is fit for purpose, delivers real value and remains relevant as technology evolves.
Step 1. Right people, right job
Contrary to popular belief, an IT strategy isn’t a dry, technical document that an IT Manager creates, and nobody reads! To succeed it needs input from every level, and a promise to staff in return that they will see tangible outcomes.
Assembling the right team is the most vital step in the process. Forming an IT Steering Committee with a cross-section of teams is a great way to create momentum. The Sponsor should be at a senior level outside of day-to-day IT.
Using a facilitator can really help. At Smartdesc our “Virtual IT Directors” help charities and non-profit organisations, large and small, develop and deliver IT strategies that range from complex digital transformation programmes to simple, short term improvement plans to ensure IT moves forward at a pace and budget that is appropriate to the needs of the organisation without the overheads of a full time employee.
Step 2. Listen
Taking the time to listen to your teams’ aspirations and frustrations with IT goes a long way to ensuring the IT strategy delivers the best possible return on investment. Including information governance and cyber security in those conversations also helps identify and deal with potential risks you may be unaware of.
A Gap Analysis is a logical place to start. Interviews, group workshops and surveys are good ways to gather feedback, and don’t forget to include all areas of your current IT function in this engagement; volunteers, suppliers, partners and consultants will all have valuable feedback and ideas to help form the “wish list”.
Step 3. Laser-focus on Mission
IT should enable your organisation to deliver its goals by giving staff the technical tools, skills and the associated processes to be productive and work securely.
The deliverables of an IT strategy should be highly aligned to these goals. IT strategies that directly reference Vision and Values foster engagement and keep IT relevant. Would flexible remote working help you attract more diverse talent? Would allowing volunteers to use personal devices – in a secure way – expand your throughput without prohibitive IT hardware costs? What changes would be needed to your IT systems to facilitate those benefits?
Don’t be swayed by individual vendors or specific tools and lose sight of the broader requirements of the team. Invest time to ask what staff want to achieve and how they want to work – remaining completely neutral when it comes to that latest app or cool new product. When the requirements are clear the experts can design the right solution.
Step 4. Sustainability
The holy grail for IT is to be more proactive than reactive. This isn’t easy but recognizing that an IT strategy must cater for proactive checks, maintenance and investment in tools that simplify management and support of equipment will save countless hours lost to reactive outages and interruptions.
This applies as much to people as it does to processes and tools; a good IT strategy includes training, knowledge sharing, shadowing, mentoring and upskilling on digital technologies so you are less reliant on IT support.
Step 5. Think big
Space to be creative and innovate is time well spent – consider holding a regular forum to explore new products, apps, AI or automation systems to share ideas, current challenges and opportunities back to the organisation to bring about smarter ways of working or engaging with beneficiaries & supporters on an evolving basis.
Step 6. Timescales and Budget
Realistic timescales need to be set for your IT Strategy and developing a rhythm for reviewing and updating it regularly will go a very long way to ensuring continued improvement.
Typically, an IT Strategy aims to cover a 3-year period, however, progress against it should be checked and reported on a monthly or quarterly basis via a working group or steering committee; it is a living document after all and the more you put in the more you will get out.
Budget is also an area that can be overlooked, leaving finance staff with unpredictable IT costs that can have the knock-on effect of hampering investment.
Time spent during the strategic planning process looking at historical IT spend over the last 1–2 years is a simple way to baseline a budget for the forthcoming period, with allowances for some contingency and project work. This baseline can be tracked against actuals over the year and reviewed at year end.
Your supplier or a Virtual IT Director will have numerous templates to help categorize, track and report on Budget vs Spend, which allows the leadership to focus on the major cost centres and then enter into detailed discussions with 3rd party vendors about the biggest cost areas to leverage savings wherever possible.
When discussing IT strategy with stakeholders it can be hard to know where to start. The following is a list of questions that can be used to prompt discussions and start the conversation:
- What is our anticipated change in number of staff, geography, type (UK / International / Full Time / Volunteer etc.)?
- Is the delivery model likely to change in the near future? E.g. full remote working available to all staff all the time?
- Are we going to appeal to the same or different type of supporter or beneficiary?
- What relationships might we enter with third party partners and/or technology vendors?
- Do we anticipate any mergers or acquisitions?
- Are there new services we plan to offer to in the medium term?
- How will the existing services evolve in terms of technology or use cases?
- Will the level of integration we require between central systems like files and email and team-specific applications change?
- What is required from IT to support internal Compliance and Risk Management processes?
- Do we envisage using or expanding use of automation or AI tools in the coming years?
- Are there any major projects currently going through approval that will require IT delivery over the next 12 – 24 months?
- How do staff feel about the level of IT support they currently receive? What are the pain points?
- How confident are we that our data is secure? Is there a Security Incident process?
- Do we offer staff IT and Security training? Do we know our staff’s strengths/weaknesses with IT?
- Would staff or volunteers prefer using their own personal devices? How would we secure these?
James Field is Customer Strategy Director at Smartdesc, an independent IT Services Provider to the Charity and Not for Profit sector, and NCVO Trusted Supplier.
James is a Project Manager by background, having spent 5 years in the corporate sector and 10+ years delivering change projects to NFP organisations.
Nowadays, James acts as a Virtual IT Director for several organisations, helping them create and deliver IT strategies and overseeing IT improvement programmes