Sorry to raise the spectre of Nick Carr.
We've been talking a lot at Burton Group lately about how the downturn in the US economy will impact development shops. Jack wrote it about it here and here. Expect more coverage from us in the form of articles in the business press, podcasts, telebriefings, documents and more blog posts.
As the economy turns the screws on IT shops, one of the first things to get jettisoned is likely to be strategy: that fragrant term that is nice to swirl around in the mouth when times are flush, but gets spit out quickly when times are lean. Focus jumps to projects that return immediate demonstrable value and support core functionality. Strategic projects (with longer lifespans and distant ROI) that may have been approved in the fall budget exercises are taken off the table. Often, the result is a number of releases that solve momentary issues with tight coupling to business lines, designed and created in isolation from one another. Over the course of several months, horizontal architecture dreams give way to the old vertical habits. When the economic horizon starts to brighten again, strategy creeps back in but must fight its way through more inertia than in the past.
The tightening of budgets in lean times is fiscally responsible behavior. I'm not so idealistic as to think that we simply plow ahead with plans that need to be revised: reallocation and reassessment are part of running IT as a business. It is the responsibility of the IT department and its leaders to ensure that the result of this tightening is "toning" instead of just "weight loss". The number of projects may be reduced, but those projects should still be designed and executed along strategic lines. Consider what each project contributes to the overall vision of IT. For example, each may contribute a portion of functionality to what becomes a pool of common services. The projects become iterative components of the larger strategy. They should not be independently conceived knee-jerks: the hallmark of a reactive IT shop.
Just because times are tight does not mean that strategic design is a luxury. On the contrary, the architecture which makes strategy "real" is even more important in the face of economic pressure. It ensures that things are built in the "correct" way while satisfying core functional requests. It increases the chance that the set of projects built during an economically stoic time emerge as related parts of the evolving IT infrastructure. It reduces the amount of refactoring that will be required in the future.
Strategy looks as far out as it can see. Reactive IT functions only in the moment. The challenge for IT shops in the coming months is to keep an eye on the horizon while addressing critical needs.
Strategy does matter.