This case described the development of Strategic Information Systems Planning for Shanghai Bell Corporation, a high-tech company in China. Some of the key issues and challenges faced during the process are presented here for further discussion.
Issues related to evaluation. How should one evaluate a strategic IT planning project? What are the criteria for evaluating SISP success? These are hard problems with little consensus in the literature. From a practical perspective, the objective of SISP is to produce a workable schedule for approved application portfolio. Therefore, the close relationship between the strategic plan and the subsequent implementations can be considered as a key indicator of the contribution of a strategic plan. Success can be assessed by the degree to which implementations were carried out according to the strategic plan. Another indicator of success is the advancement of IT/IS positions in an organizational hierarchy. In this case, a CIO position was to be established and a centralized IT/IS department was being planned. Further, a significant increase in IT investment was planned. Could this SISP project be considered a success? What are the relevant factors to be taken into account in evaluating a strategic planning process?
Issues related to politics. The SISP project was supported and emphasized by Mr. Xi, the chairman and CEO of Sbell, and directed by one of the VPs, who was responsible for R & D. The planners received full support from the middle management within R & D, but less interest and cooperation from some departments, such as sales and finance. Insufficient communication with some of the middle management is one of the weaknesses of this project. Although this might seem to have a subtle impact on the strategic plan, it may have unexpected consequences on the implementation that follows (i.e., lack of support from middle management may jeopardize the implementation). Such problems are common for many projects. What are the steps could be taken to reduce the effect of politics and to increase participation?
Issues related to methodology. In this case, the strategic application architecture plan was based on the analysis of current business process. As we know, the business processes for a large company are very complex and it is almost impossible to capture these processes completely within a short time. At what level of analysis would it be considered sufficient? This seems to be a tricky issue to deal with. For example, if the business processes are captured at a high level of granularity, the planners might not be able to identify the key business processes, and the gaps between the business needs and the functionality provided by the existing application systems. On the other hand, if the analysis is too detailed, it would be extremely time-consuming, costly and unnecessary.
Support from top management. Support from top management is one of the critical success factors for any IT project, especially for a strategic IT/IS planning project, which primarily benefits the top management. The support from the CEO and VPs was very helpful to the planners in carrying out large-scale interviews and administering questionnaires within the company. Also, the commitment of top management is the decisive factor for subsequent implementation. Since obtaining commitment from the top management was not easy, the planners took the effort to seek opportunities to engage in regular communications with the top management. They also convinced the top management that the results have significant implications since they were developed based on a scientific methodology. What are some general recommendations and suggesting the seeking commitment from the top management? What could Sbell have done better?
Issues related to teamwork. A success factor in this case was attributed to the close cooperation among members in the project team. Three groups in the project—employees from Sbell, consultants from consulting company A, and consultants from company—worked closely together during the entire SISP process. The team leaders (two IT managers from Sbell) and the full-time and part-time team members from Sbell played an active role in the development of SISP. They were highly regarded employees and professionals in the different departments, and they knew the business very well and had excellent communication skills. Without their help, it would be hard for the consultants to receive a fairly high level of participation in conducting interviews and questionnaires, and to obtain first hand materials in such a short period of time. The consultants in Company A possessed experience in developing IT projects in Chinese companies; they have skills to manage cultural and political issues; they also have no language difficulty in communicating with employees of Sbell. The consultants in Company B have a strong IT consulting background and they have a sound methodology and a good reputation. The three groups have their unique characteristics, and a combination of these specific strengths contributed to the smooth development of the project.
The role of consulting companies. Companies might be reluctant to hire consultants because they are suspicious of what consulting companies can really do for them. In this case, the consulting companies played a key role in developing the strategic plan, in educating the internal employees, and in promoting the IT positions within the company. At the beginning, Sbell had no idea how to develop a strategic IT/IS plan. The consulting companies brought the knowledge into Sbell, and educated the company on a scientific development methodology. The training greatly benefited employees, especially those in the project team, by providing them a good understanding of SISP. These employees became proficient in applying the SISP methodology at the end of the project and would definitely be taking an active role in future development of IT within Sbell. The communication between the consultants and the employees also led to increased recognition of the importance of the role of IT within the company. Furthermore, it prompted the top management, middle management and the staff to pay more attention to the role of IT in achieving business success. Several other lessons can be learned from this case. With rich experience and a strong knowledge base, consultants may be inclined to draw conclusions from their previous experience, which may not fit a specific company. In this case, due to the limitation of time and resource, Sbell spent little time on issues related to technical architecture, where the consultants made most of the recommendations. In the subsequent implementation (CPC and CRM), some problems emerged and the company felt the need to modify the technical architecture. Hence, Sbell learned that it should not completely rely on the consulting companies; modifications might be needed to better meet its needs before finalizing the plan.