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Creating a Strategic Information Systems Plan

Providing leadership, directing, and administering the organization and coordination of information systems and technologies of an enterprise aimed at supporting education and student services programs starts with the development of a strategic plan. In order for technology branches of education agency’s to be proactive (as opposed to their traditional reactive role), such strategic plans are more necessary now more than ever. Over the years, I’ve learned a multi-step process (thanks to the work of the Asbury Group) to developing such a plan is most effective. These steps include:

  1. Alignment with organizational priorities and goals.

  2. Collection of inter-departmental information and data.

  3. Benchmarking of services and budgets.

  4. Systems review.

  5. Gap analysis.

  6. Short and long-term plan development.

  7. Integration of IS/IT services into all critical organization-wide decisions and actions.

In this post, I will discuss the steps above in some detail.

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In most organizations, IT planning is simply a matter of including spending lines in the next year’s organizational budget. But in the field of education, we must approach the IT plan differently because we are such a highly regulated industry. That is, in order to meet the current and future needs of our school districts is to have a comprehensive plan that takes into consideration the current requirements of our system and accurately forecasts spending over several years. Moreover, the plan must be compared and aligned with the organization’s overall strategic plans and revised annually to insure it remains closely associated with any alterations or changes with the educational agency’s goals.

To begin, CTOs should review the organization’s strategic and tactical goals as these goals will highlight specifically which areas technology may enhance or optimize processes for achieving the educational agency’s goals. Moreover, such an analysis may yield areas of technological services that are either not needed or may be re-shaped in scope. For example, if the LEA’s (local education agency) has set out a strategic goal to provide world language acquisition as one of their primary functions, how may that alter the types of services that the IT branch may want to invest in? They may wish to investigate and deploy telepresence video conferencing technologies so that students may connect with target-language speaking counterparts across the globe. Or, they may want to install software solutions for language translation as well as specific language packs in specific workstations at some schools.

The next step is to engage all department heads to elicit needs data. It’s probably best for the planning team to collect such data in various ways. The idea is to use such data to extrapolate trends and set direction for the IT plan. For example, simply distributing a survey may be useful in some regards but it may be more beneficial to conduct interviews—especially with executives and department supervisors. The key is to interweave multiple streams of data to create a picture of the LEA’s strengths and weaknesses as well as to suss out potential opportunities or threats to the IT plan.

The next step is to evaluate and benchmark the size and scope of your organization’s IT services as related to other similar organizations. You may want to look at aspects such as leadership. For example, in some LEAs, the head of technology services is sub-cabinet position while in others, they are considered executive directors or assistant superintendents. You may want to take a look at your staff’s responsibilities in comparison to their counterparts in other LEAs. Perhaps you may benefit from investigating how similar LEAs are budgeting their IT needs. In some cases, the technology department may be partially income-driven (i.e. relies on contracts with schools or other districts if they are a COE). In others, they may be fully funded by general funds but may be spending their dollars in such a way that sparks a new approach for your own LEA.

Taking a critical look at how IT/IS is funded may yield a deeper understanding of just how the department is positioned in context of the enterprise as well as give you ideas about planning for long-term objectives. For example, you may find that your department is thought of more as a cost of doing business as opposed to an enabler of services and critical to the mission of the LEA. How will you alter this perspective? There are several questions to think about in this regard including whether or not IT leadership is represented at the executive level. You’ll want to think about how your organizations directives are communicated to IT. Perhaps it would make sense to outsource some of the IT department’s services to lower costs. What about refresh cycles or capacity to replace devices?

We then move to conducting a systems review. LEAs use specific applications in multiple fields such as SISs, ECM solutions, ERP solutions, education technology applications, etc. The costs of replacing or improving such systems can be significant and should be approached with great care. If such replacements or enhancements are necessary, it is critical to ensure that as CTO, you have identified all of the needs before beginning to communicate with potential vendors. Therefore, a software systems application review is an important aspect of preparing a strategic IT plan for your LEA.

First, start by determining if the applications in use are meeting the needs of your stakeholders. This can be easily accomplished through interviewing appropriate staff in related departments. After analyzing the needs, meet with your current providers to see what they can do about the shortcomings (if any) of the systems you have in place. Even if they can meet the new needs, I still recommend conferring with alternative vendors to see if their solutions are more robust or include features of software that your stakeholders didn’t even know they could leverage.

At this point, you are almost ready to start drafting your strategic plan. The key now is to identify the gap between your current state and the future state of the IT department. This is where the real talent of a CTO comes into play. There are so many elements that you may discover by looking at the data you’ve collected as well as what you’ve learned about the organization’s overall goals, the specific needs of the various departments of the LEA, how other LEAs work as well as your current systems. You may determine, for example that an infrastructural upgrade is required to meet the goals of your organization; software applications may need to be replaced; your staff needs more training; your end-users aren’t taking full advantage of the systems they currently have; you are overstaffed. During the gap analysis phase, you are preparing your main tactical goals of your strategic plan so it’s important to take your time and get as many of your team leads involved as possible.

The job of the CTO at this point is to prioritize projects over a three to five year period. But there are many interdependencies involved with current IT projects and processes and because of that, I recommend, the drafting of the plan be done by or team leads (or even consultants) because they are the ones that have the in-depth technology background in the respective projects. The CTO is at the high level of planning and leadership so your role is to direct the priorities so that your staff can assemble these priorities into an operational calendar.

In looking at priority projects, you’ll need to determine if it makes sense to build an internal staff to handle the projects or to outsource them based on your capacity. This will of course entail the need for an ROI study on the costs to in-source versus outsourcing. In my experience, I am seeing more and more outsourcing going on so that the staff that is available can focus on their strengths as opposed to stretch themselves (potentially to a point of tearing). What is very important is that once your plan and timelines are approved, the organizational leadership reviews the plan at least twice a year to identify elements that may need to be revised/updated. Too often, IT is only considered during budget planning processes at the executive level. But if your IT strategic plan is reviewed periodically as a matter of course, more of the LEA’s leadership will recognize that IT is the cornerstone of the successful achievement of the organization’s educational and mission-critical goals.

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