Three ways to define and implement a corporate strategy

The term "strategy" means different things to different organizations. But no matter how it's defined, every company should have one. James Champy offers three pieces of advice on how to determine and implement your company's strategy.

IT professionals often feel in the dark -- especially with respect to their company's strategy. In many cases, it's often hard to even define the strategy. So let's first start with a definition of strategy.

I'm a fan of the Peter Drucker definition: strategy is about knowing where your company is today, where you want to take it, and how you are going to get there. Most companies -- and their managers -- know where they stand today, although they don't always face the reality of how stiff their competition can be. But few companies are explicit about the future: in what markets will they operate, how large and quickly can they grow, how will they differentiate, what do they offer to customers, is scale important? If you are in a company where the strategy and future appears unclear, what can you do? Here is some advice on discovering and implementing your strategy:

Look for a strategy in your company's actions.

You may not be able to find a written strategy statement anywhere in the corporate records. But that doesn't mean that your company doesn't have a strategy. I remember challenging a CEO of a very large company on his strategy. I told him that the company's written strategy was weak and contained no differentiating propositions. He glared back at me, pointing out that his company had grown dramatically over the past few years. Upon studying the actions of the company more closely, it became clearer that the company did have a strategy: build market share through the acquisition of companies that had complementary products. But that strategy had never been written down.

Often, companies have implicit strategies -- ones that you understand only by studying the repeated actions of the CEO. So be a close observer and make up, then test by talking with others, where you believe your company is headed.

The strategy may be just opportunistic.

When companies are first launched and struggling to grow, they often pursue any business opportunity that might match their competency. This is truer of service companies than product companies. It takes a while for a company to realize that an actual strategy requires focus and making hard choices. But some companies never grow out of being opportunistic: They go after anything that moves.

If this is how your company operates, be ready for a rough ride. As a business function, IT will be called upon to respond to the whims of management. It's a tough condition, one in which you must learn to be nimble. Your hope is that eventually your company will grow up.

If there is no strategy, follow the processes.

If after trying and intellectualizing you still can't find a company strategy, don't despair. You can still follow and implement the company's business processes. Although I believe that an inspired IT organization should be well tuned with a company's strategy, the work of IT is more directly linked to the company's processes. The IT infrastructure -- servers, networks, help desks -- is sized by what processes the company demands. The systems that you implement represent the company's key processes in both administrative functions -- such as HR and finance -- and operating processes like procurement, supply chain management and manufacturing.

From a day-to-day perspective, it's arguably more important to know these processes than to be able to articulate the company's strategy. But knowing where the company is going adds the extra benefits of knowing what will ultimately be expected of IT and the excitement of knowing that your company has a well-considered future.

If all else fails, you can always just ask your CEO for the company strategy. But beware: The CEO likely thinks the strategy is broadly understood. Most CEOs don't recognize what it takes to get everyone in the company to know where it's going.

James Champy is chairman of Perot Systems Corp.'s consulting practice and head of strategy for the company. He is also the author of the best-selling books Reengineering the Corporation, Reengineering Management, The Arc of Ambition and X-Engineering the Corporation.

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