sextant /’sɛk stənt/ noun

  1. an astronomical instrument used to determine latitude and longitude at sea by measuring angular distances, especially the altitudes of sun, moon, and stars
  2. a navigational instrument used to align known and unknown elements to determine a course for the future

Organizations can plan for known technologies, but how does one plan for technologies that don’t exist yet, or are new, and exciting, but haven’t developed proven use cases?

As technology consultants, the goal is to ground project- and organizational-appropriate recommendations in today’s proven reality, while helping extend each client’s vision with an informed plan alignment with a highly probable future. Where sextants helped early sailors determine the appropriate course, today the sextant technology planning process can help organizations plot a course for improved communication, connection, and collaboration with their staff, their clients, and their communities.

One of the greatest challenges to effective strategic technology planning is the speed of change. One only need to look back ten years ago to see several significant technologies (e.g. streaming video, gigabit Wi-Fi, phone/tablet/wearable computing, AR/VR, gene editing/CRISPR, social media, drones, 3D-printing, etc.) taken for granted today that didn’t exist or were only in their infancy.

Today, in most of the developed world, connectivity to broadband and Wi-Fi has the same level of expected quality and convenience as turning on the lights or drawing a glass of water. Now, just imagine another decade of development and progress!

THE ‘WHY’ OF SEXTANT TECHNOLOGY PLANNING

Effective strategic technology planning builds on the institutions’ strengthsthe positive core competencies, discovers profitable opportunities, helps visualize and articulate goals and strategic alternatives, and enabling objectives. The results of strategic technology planning are a set of well-designed and integrated goals, objectives, initiatives, and tactics aligned with the highest potential results and value. This creates an achievable plan that is a dynamic, continuous, and living process.

There is an old saying that good strategic planning is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You start at one end, and when you reach the other end, you go back and start over. We recommend that when developing a plan, focus on a reasonable implementation schedule. The best technology plans include an annual review of near-term enactment initiatives, with a 3-year look-ahead of what are the highest next priorities. Looking further than three years is likely to be less effective given the pace of change we are experiencing today.

START WITH THE END IN MIND

All successful strategic planning efforts start with a vision. Helping clients articulate a vision for something that doesn’t or may not exist is challenging. Beginning with an understanding of each organization’s core business/institutional mission (what we do) defines the reason for which the organization exists. Extending that discussion to vision articulates leadership’s strategic long-term intent (what we want to be). Supporting mission and vision, defined values are cultural truths that describe how, externally, each organization interacts with its clients, and internally, with its staff and supporting resources (i.e., vendors, associates, affiliates, etc.).

All successful strategic planning efforts start with a vision. Helping clients articulate a vision for something that doesn’t or may not exist is challenging. Beginning with an understanding of each organization’s core business/institutional mission (what we do) defines the reason for which the organization exists. Extending that discussion to vision articulates leadership’s strategic long-term intent (what we want to be). Supporting mission and vision, defined values are cultural truths that describe how, externally, each organization interacts with its clients, and internally, with its staff and supporting resources (i.e., vendors, associates, affiliates, etc.).

Using the same inquiry-based process, organizations can focus on how technology works today, could work in the future, and what positive qualities that experience would bring to the management, staff, and their clients. As a subset of comprehensive strategic planning, technology planning provides the communication, connection, and collaboration infrastructure to support the organizations business/institutional short- and long-term objectives. Simply put, define each of these five elements of planning:

  • Purpose: What technology implementations, if initiated, would make the greatest difference?
  • Strengths: The current state. What’s working well now?
  • Opportunities: Imagine the possibilities. What could be?
  • Aspirations: The most important. What should be?
  • Results: Making it real. What will be?

Each of these questions can be expanded to include reviews of different business-unit, internal processes, and external (client-facing) initiatives, with the perspective of what existing, new or emerging technology, if implemented, would make a positive difference.

Specific, measurable, achievable, resourced and time-bound, these objectives generate initiatives—the “how to” means or actions—to achieve the goals. Tactically, these translate into “the what, by who, by when” actions needed to implement each initiative, tied to a metric of change that measures effectiveness over time.

ENABLING DISCOVERY

After determining the technology-related mission, vision, and values, it is important to review existing standards and note their relevance when looking forward. Similarly, a review of current capital and operational budgets, a conduct facilities/infrastructure inventory, and a review organizational structures, job descriptions, methodologies, and policies provide a comprehensive overview of the status quo.

Interviews with stakeholders across the organization can provide insights into the user experience, supplemented by online surveys to access the cultural perspective of how technology supports individuals and the enterprise.

Documenting roles and relationships within current staffing structures, use of external resources gives a picture of the human factors. Diagraming workflows and determining important key performance indicators (KPIs) provide a complete picture of the current state.

FOCUS ON INNOVATION

Many organizations use some form of “visioning” to move institutional thinking beyond “what is” to “what could be.” By fostering cognitive dissonance, planning ideation can diverge from previous norms to look forward, examining emerging technologies that are likely to have an impact on near-future initiatives. A good resource for this kind of information can be found at Gartner. Their annual “Tech Hype Cycle” report charts the progress and expectations of new technologies from their initial introduction, through public awareness, to a productive use case. This 5- to 10-year cycle has been accurate in predicting many technologies we take for granted today, like gigabit Wi-Fi.

Where visioning promotes future thinking, benchmarking compares the enterprise technology goals to other comparable organization’s approaches and implementations. This is a good tool to use to help stakeholders visualize those features they see as beneficial, and those they don’t.

At this stage, it is important to summarize consensus and document key technology drivers most relevant to the organization. Comparing to the appreciative inquiry summary derived from earlier analysis identifies service and support gaps, and provides data for a realistic assessment of organizational effectiveness and alignment with the technology vision.

MAKING AN IMPACT

With a thorough Discovery phase, an open and forward-looking Innovation phase, the final element in developing a strategic technology plan is to finalize goals, objectives, initiatives, and tactics. Documenting technology goals confirms and set primary objectives. It helps prioritize technology initiatives and identifies alternative processes and technologies for consideration.

Establishing a repeatable (and revisable) framework for technology architecture helps quantify performance improvement expectations and metrics. It provides the ability to translate tactics into budgets. Creating a schedule with associated responsibilities and resources provides the data for enterprise dashboard elements.

There is little doubt about the importance of integrated planning. Including a strategic technology plan as an element of the overall business planning process aligns relevant supporting technology with enterprise goals. A technology-focused appreciative inquiry process that spans organizational silos brings a valuable perspective to the inclusion and effectiveness in implementing technology that supports goals and outcomes. Asking key questions, sharing observations and goals, and determining priorities lead to rich, technology-supported environments.

This approach of balancing modernization and upgrade needs with sustainment and operational considerations is the basis for an effective strategic technology plan. Supporting the implementation of a planning process includes establishing a standing advisory task force—representing a cross-section of the organization—provides the foundation and internal support for ongoing analysis, review, and recommendations to meet the short- and long-term goals, needs, and resources of a sustainable technology plan.

WHAT COMES NEXT?

Ultimately, the best investment in technology is planning for sustainable infrastructure upgrades that proceed on a measured pace recognizing the fast-changing nature of all information-, communication- and collaboration-related technologies.

As Buddha purportedly said, “An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that only exists as an idea.” 

Sextant Technology Planning—the investment of time and resources to develop a navigable blueprint for change—provides the organization with a robust, reflective, and well-informed plan, aligned with the known, while prepared for an unknown future.

And remember the Golden Gate Bridge: as soon as you are done, it’s time to start again.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc. AIA is a principal with national engineering & technology consultants, Sextant Group/NV5 Engineering & Technology (www.thesextantgroup.com). He has been active in the building industry for over 40 years and leads the firm’s Southeast regional technology consulting team from Charleston SC. Reach Craig at cpark@TheSextantGroup.com or 843.699.0010.