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How do you balance IT strategic planning and tactical decisions?

Our IT salary and careers survey did a little probing this year around one of those fraught CIO career questions: How much time do you devote to IT strategic planning as opposed to tactical decisions? We also asked whether the recession had an impact on that ratio.

Not surprisingly, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression made its impression. Tactical decisions outweighed IT strategic planning for CIOs in 2009 — a lot more, for some.

The Doe Run Co.’s Sharon Gietl, for example, went from spending 40% to 60% of her time on strategy to devoting 80% to 90% on tactics in 2009. Gietl said her IT strategy can be summed up as “moving the business forward.” Last year, she was figuring out whom and what to cut to help keep the company afloat.

The salient fact in my follow-up interview with Gietl, however, was that everybody else at Doe Run was doing the same. Ron Washington, CIO at Ergon, a petroleum products company, told us he met the greater demands for operational duties by working longer hours, just like — you guessed it — everybody else on his team. CIOs did what they had to do help their companies survive 2009.

CIO goal: 80% on strategy?

In my survey follow-up, I also asked analysts and career experts if the shift to tactics in 2009 signals a step backward for the CIO career. The answer, for the most part, was no. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. In normal times, if there is such a thing anymore, the ratio between tactics and strategy will depend on the maturity of the company, said consultant Bruce Barnes, offering an analogy to the automobile. Steering is up front, with the driver’s focus on the future destination and the many possible impediments to reaching it. The tactical application of the energy to get you there — making the wheels turn forward — is in the back of the car. The less mature or operationally efficient an organization, the more time the CIO will have to spend on that tactical drive train, and the slower the trip to reach his or her strategic goals, Barnes said.

Of course, the elephant in the room — the fraught part of the question — is whether there is a right balance between IT strategic planning and short-term tactical decisions for those CIOs determined to drive business value.

Barnes gave it a shot: “The CIO’s goal needs to be getting to the point where about 80% of his/her time is being spent steering and watching/planning the road ahead … as well as enjoying the ride.”

I’d like to hear what you consider the ideal balance between IT strategy and tactics in your job and why — and, oh yes, if you’re enjoying the ride.

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