The Paradox of Strategic Technology Planning

This month, I would like to reflect on the impact of rapid change and the logic behind strategic technology planning in the adoption of emerging technologies.

In 1998, Martin Ringle and Daniel Updegrove asked the question “Is strategic planning for technology an oxymoron?” after querying more than 150 technology officers in higher education on the practice of strategic technology planning. Ringle and Updegrove found that while the vast majority of technology officers engaged in active strategic planning, many technology officers also believed strategic planning would fail because technology changes too fast, making it impossible to predict which emerging technologies will meet user demands in the foreseeable future. From this perspective, “strategic technology planning” is paradoxical because it seems contradictory to plan for the unpredictable.

In a recent EDUCAUSE article, Susan Grajek and the 2014-2015 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel hail our arrival at an inflection point.  Their colloquial use of the mathematical term “inflection point” describes a turning point that results in extraordinary change. Grajek et al., attribute our arrival at this inflection point to Moore’s Law and technology adoption in higher education. First, they posit that the impact of Moore’s Law has pushed us towards a point of exponential growth, whereby “IT architecture, process optimization, service management, and risk management are efforts to manage this overwhelming bounty.” Second, they observe that we have reached an inflection point in the higher education technology adoption curve when mainstream adopters, those motivated by the need to solve current problems with new technologies rather than the need to innovate, enter the market.

Due to our arrival at this inflection point, the authors expect that the EDUCAUSE list of Top 10 IT Issues, 2015 will be characterized by unprecedented change:

  1. Hiring and retaining qualified staff, and updating the knowledge and skills of existing technology staff
  2. Optimizing the use of technology in teaching and learning in collaboration with academic leadership, including understanding the appropriate level of technology to use
  3. Developing IT funding models that sustain core service, support innovation, and facilitate growth
  4. Improving student outcomes through an institutional approach that strategically leverages technology
  5. Demonstrating the business value of information technology and how technology and the IT organization can help the institution achieve its goals
  6. Increasing the IT organization's capacity for managing change, despite differing community needs, priorities, and abilities
  7. Providing user support in the new normal—mobile, online education, cloud, and BYOD environments
  8. Developing mobile, cloud, and digital security policies that work for most of the institutional community
  9. Developing an enterprise IT architecture that can respond to changing conditions and new opportunities
  10. Balancing agility, openness, and security

There are numerous reasons why strategic planning can fail, but for the purpose of this post, I would like to focus on the effect of rapid and abundant change. If we entertain the notion that strategic technology planning is a waste of time because technology changes too fast, our arrival at this inflection point should make strategic planning seem even more like an exercise in futility.  However, planning for the unpredictable is an inherent paradox in strategic planning. While we can point to numerous reports forecasting technology trends, we should remind ourselves that preparing for the unexpected is one of several critical planning strategies.

Most of us wear many hats at our institution. In the face of overwhelming change, additional resources are not always the answer, but strategic allocation of our time, skills, and efforts, helps us optimize limited resources and increases our capacity to manage change. A conventional strategic plan helps us recognize options and possible outcomes, establish objectives and priorities, and align strategic direction with that of the institution and community we serve. A successful strategic plan however, requires that we manage the planning paradox by creating an agile plan that allows us to respond to change, rather than one that enables us to accurately predict the future impact of change. Based on an understanding of an evolving future and anticipated needs, a strategic plan should be a living document that undergoes ongoing assessment and realignment of realistic objectives and priorities.

In the end, creating an unwieldy plan is just as counterproductive as having no plan. In spite of and because of uncertainy, the amount of time and effort we put into planning pays off over time. It is a useful exercise to plan for the unpredictable.