Why IT planning is broken, and what to do about it

IT planning is broken. From the research I have participated in and the conversations I've had with people in the field, I can say that this is unambiguously true. The question is, should we care? Or is IT planning a quaint relic of a bygone era?

Thirty years ago, when I first entered the world of information technology, IT planning was all the rage. It appeared front and center on the pages of The Harvard Business Review. (See: Cyrus F. Gibson and Richard L. Nolan, "Managing the Four Stages of EDP Growth," Harvard Business Review [January-February 1974].) It was the topic at all the industry gatherings, and it was probably the defining skill that IT leaders had to master.

But the years have not been kind to this discipline. In 2010, only 40% of the organizations in the Global 2000 have prepared a pictorial description of where IT is going -- a one-page diagram that says, "We are here and are heading there." That means that 60% of the world's IT shops are essentially working without a map. And as I recently noted, the IT planning horizon at most IT shops does not exceed 18 months. Abysmally, the business community in approximately 75% of the organizations queried by the IT Leadership Academy does not feel that IT planning is effective.

In a sense, traditional IT planning -- the laborious, time-consuming, top-down "mission, vision, strategy, goals" juggernaut that still appears in many MBA textbooks -- is no longer viable because everything today moves too fast for that sort of thing. There just isn't time. There is an overwhelming sense that organizations involved in such exercises are wasting their time and worse -- eroding good will with the business community.

But the fact is that without an effective and respected IT planning process, IT professionals are doomed to play a physically and psychologically exhausting game of whack-a-mole that they can't win because they are forever trying to catch up with ever-increasing business-unit demands.

Working with HP and Avnet, we at the IT Leadership Academy queried IT workers in over 40 cities, who agreed that the IT planning process is broken, about how to fix IT planning, paying particular attention to the challenges of planning for a converged infrastructure. We specifically asked, "What is wrong?" and "What ingredients must be in a respected IT plan?" Here are the insights that emerged from that discussion.

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