Managing Information To Support Strategic Planning
Establishing An Information Management Policy, by: acknowledging the importance of information to the strategic planning process and to the operational performance of the organisation; implementing an information management policy that will ensure a continuous flow of appropriate information to all levels of the organisation; allocating responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the policy to an executive level manager; allocating level-specific responsibilities for the maintenance of the information flow.
Implementing an information management policy that is robust and rigorous is essential, not only at the strategic, corporate levels, but operationally as well. In the case of strategic planning, the quality of the information gathered, the channels used to distribute that information laterally and vertically throughout the organisation, and the interpretation of the information gathered, is vital. Without a sound foundation, the policy and its procedures, the information that is fed into the strategic planning process will be flawed, in parts at least. This will, inevitably, be damaging to the chances of the chosen strategies being successful.
Identify Information Needs, by: discussing information needs with the strategic planning team; using scenario building techniques to identify potentially differing information needs; identifying information needs of partners and key stakeholders who will be involved in the planning process; forecasting information needs for the strategic planning process; forecasting post-implementation information needs; reviewing existing information, channels and flows and identifying gaps and inadequacies; drawing up a list of information needs. This is another crucial early stage in the use of information in the strategic planning process. The leader(s) and other members of the planning team must be clear about their information needs. Whilst at this stage it is not possible to identify all the specific details, it is essential to draw up a list of categories of information that will lead to sufficient information being gathered. For example, one of the categories will be information on forecast changes in the external environment, another will be information on current and predicted competitor behaviour, another may be information on potential manpower resources, and so on. For public sector organisations one of the categories will be predicted government actions, such as in the setting of financial targets or other performance indicators. The role of the planning team is to ensure that their needs are understood and satisfied.
Establish Effective Gathering Methods, by: evaluating methods of information gathering currently used in the organisation; evaluating methods of information gathering not currently used in the organisation; selecting an appropriate range of methods for use in the strategic planning process; selecting individuals and teams to carry out the information gathering activities; providing training, financial and physical resources, to support the information gathering activity; implementing a monitoring and control procedure to ensure the process continues to be productive. There is a range of well established methods used internally by organisations, and well established commercial companies, that will provide the required information. In both cases, the methods used in gathering information must be appropriate and effective, in terms of being cost-effective and in terms of the quality of information gathered. In addition, particularly in the case of the commercial providers, the methods should be ethically sound. Whilst information gathered through unethical methods may not directly damage the strategic planning process, damage may well be caused to the reputation of the receiving organisation, and this may well then damage the chances of the strategies being successful. Obtain Required Information, by: obtaining primary and secondary objective information from internal sources and external providers; obtaining subjective information from analytical techniques such as PEST and SWOT analysis; obtaining subjective information from Competitor Analysis techniques.
Validating Information Obtained, by: vetting the quality of all sources and providers of information; testing the validity of information received; replacing unsafe information or at least acknowledging the weaknesses in it and highlighting this when it is used in the planning process. It is critical that the information used in the strategic planning process is valid. Plans based, even in part, on inaccurate, invalid, or in any way inappropriate, information, are inherently flawed and will almost certainly fail in part or totally. Internal sources of information, and the process of gathering that information, must be rigorously checked on a regular basis. External providers of information, such as commercial companies that carry out surveys or other information gathering activities, must be treated in the same way as other suppliers, in that they must be vetted for appropriate expertise and experience, for their operational quality levels, for financial standing, as well as for their ability to understand and interpret the needs of the purchasing organisation. Regarding the analytical techniques used, there are a huge range of tools and techniques that can be used to analyse information. The techniques mentioned above are named because they are common ones, familiar to most senior managers. There are many other proven methods, and these should be evaluated and used where appropriate. It is however, important to be aware that the quality of the output, the findings, from these analytical techniques are dependent on the skills of those using them and the interpretation, the conclusions, made by the analysers, and then by the end users.
Apply Outcomes To Strategic Planning Process, by: interpreting and applying the findings to the deliberations and decision making activity; regularly reviewing the validity of information and interpretations used, during the process; refreshing the information and interpretations as necessary. Using the information in the decision making activity, in building up the strategic plan, must be seen as a continuous process and one that must be monitored and controlled. If, for example, information is gathered and interpreted at the start of the planning process, and is only applied at a later stage (some annual strategic planning processes can last for many months) then the validity, the currency, of that information and its interpretation, must be challenged and if necessary discarded and replaced.
Review Effectiveness Of Process, by: carrying out regular audits on the effectiveness of the methods, tools and techniques, used in the information gathering process; carrying out regular audits on the relevance, accuracy, and value of information used in the planning process; regularly reviewing the value of the information inputs as part of the strategic planning review sessions; taking corrective action where necessary. The whole information gathering process must be reviewed on a regular basis. Ideally this should be an agenda item on all the scheduled strategic level team meetings. An additional review should take place before each distinct strategic planning process starts. In addition, the Information Management Policy itself must be reviewed and refreshed annually. To rely on outdated, inappropriate, invalid, information gathering processes would be highly damaging to the chances of future success.
Establish Future Information Needs, by: implementing a continuous development approach to information gathering, whereby the information needs of the organisation, at strategic and operational levels are continuously assessed and action instigated to satisfy those needs. In today’s fast changing world of business the strategic planning process is one that is repeated at least annually, often more frequently to the point where for many organisations it is now a continuous process. Satisfying future information needs cannot be carried out as a discrete pre-planning activity. Information gathering must be continuous, and therefore future information needs must be identified on a regular basis, and these needs must then be satisfied by the information gatherers. In this way the planners have access to the necessary information as and when they need it.
In Summary: High quality information is critical to the success of the strategic plans of any organisation. All other factors can be in place, but if the information is flawed in any way, then success is much less likely. If success is achieved it may well be at a high cost. High quality information must be acknowledged as one of the organisation’s top priorities. Adopting a continuous development and improvement approach to the information gathering and interpretation process is essential. A complimentary approach that should be implemented in parallel with this is that of Knowledge Management. This relatively new approach is in response to the recognition of the increasing importance of identifying and gathering the internally generated information and the accumulated knowledge held within the organisation, and making effective use of these. The leader(s) of the strategic planning activity should combine the established principles of continuous development and improvement with the techniques of knowledge management, and build this into the strategies of the organisation. In this way the organisation is generating a continuous flow of high quality information, and making the most effective use of that information to support its chosen strategies.