Friday, January 27, 2012

TRAC: A4.2: Charting and changing a course

A4.2 Repository has in place processes to review and adjust business plans at least annually.

The repository must demonstrate its commitment to proactive business planning by performing cyclical planning processes at least yearly. The repository should be able to demonstrate its responsiveness to audit results, for example.

Evidence: Business plans, audit planning (e.g., scope, schedule, process, and requirements) and results; financial forecasts; recent audits and evidence of impact on repository operating procedures.

It certainly is the case that ICPSR undertakes a great deal of what I will describe as "tactical" business planning, and does so on a regular basis.  For example, this is the time of the year when ICPSR begins building its draft budgets for its next fiscal year (July 1 - June 30).  For my team this means that we need to look into our crystal balls and guess what our technology equipment and software expenses might be for the following year (7 to 19 months hence) and also allocate our team across two dozen different projects (e.g., 20% of Bob will be on Project X, 10% of Project Y, and the rest of Project Z).  My experience is that we almost always create a budget which accurately reflects the needs and direction of the organization, and..... is almost always missing some major initiative that only appears much, much later in the calendar year.  And so in practice the technology team aligns about 80-90% of its resources with the plan in the budget, and 10-20% end up doing something unplanned and unbudgeted.  This keeps things exciting.

Many of the other workgroups at ICPSR are much smaller than the technology team, and they have relatively long-lived contracts and grants where the budget, deliverables, work scope, etc are reasonably well defined.  I'm sure they also encounter their fair share of curveballs from their funding sources, and also review and tweak their project-year budgets at the tactical level.

So maybe a B+ or even an A- overall for ICPSR on "regular, tactical business planning."  Not bad.

Many organizations do a much poorer job of looking more deeply into their crystal balls,attempting to peer three, four, maybe even five years down the road.  And ICPSR is no exception.  I call this "strategic" business planning, and I view its role as complementary to "tactical" business planning.

If "tactical" business planning helps you figure out what you're going to do the next year, and how you're going to get it done, "strategic" business planning helps you figure out what you're NOT going to do any time soon, and how you've going to avoid heading down the wrong roads.

The output of this type of planning isn't a spreadsheet or a list of tasks.  It isn't necessarily even a list of goals.  Instead it is a shared vision for who you are, what business you are in, and where you think you need to be in three, four, maybe even five years down the road.  Here's an example:
Today we're the largest archive of survey research data in the world.  Our operations are geared to finding, collecting, curating, preserving, and delivering survey data.  We think we are the best at these activities. 
In four years, however, we believe that survey data will account for only a tiny portion of our business.  We believe that video and social media content will be the new core research content of the future, and this content requires expertise and systems very different than we have today.  Our intent is to limit the amount of time we spend growing our staff and growing our systems to support survey data; we will maintain, but not enhance.  We will seek out grants and contracts that allow us to build infrastructure and expertise in these areas.  And we will begin to invest in our people and our systems for video and social media data.  
This may or may not be the right vision and the right "strategic" business plan to make, but it illustrates the idea that the organization has charted a course.  It lets people know where they are heading.  It does NOT tell them how they will get there.  (That needs to happen eventually too, of course.)  It tells people what they are NOT going to do.

It can be really tough to step outside of the fray and the demands of the day-to-day job to think about the longer term, but it's crucial.  Otherwise an organization just keeps heading down the same road instead of looking at other available roads that may lead to better places.

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