There's an abundance of business strategy tomes to mug up on but some of the best advice comes from other sources.
The Art of War, written 2500 years ago by the Chinese General Sun Tsu, for instance, is still frequently digested by business leaders. We asked a panel of current and former CIOs for their business strategy tips.
What is business strategy?
Business strategies consist of several components but there are two big points for the IT chief to consider. The first is the commercial strategy, which is all about product and customers.
This isn't always the CIO's sphere of influence, although he or she must know it inside out.
The second is the business model, which is concerned with, among other things, how to segment customers and deliver product. This is the realm of the CIO and it's your task to engage with it and, if necessary, change it.
Align IT to the business
The alignment mantra is pretty old hat, but for some companies and CIOs it never goes away. If you're not doing that as a bare minimum, there's going to be a problem.
Ideally IT should be fused to the business, supporting it and following it all the way.
Sometimes this is referred to as an information systems strategy, where infrastructure stuff is pure IT strategy. There's a toolkit of methods and techniques to help you evaluate and put information systems strategy in place.
The first step is to call a workshop and get senior business leaders involved in the necessary analysis.
There are lots of fancy names for methods but they all amount to the same thing and are pretty straightforward.
Your analysis should identify the business' objectives and then, how information systems can support or improve their delivery. In retail, for example, it may be a calculator that tells a customer at the till how much they have saved by not shopping at Tesco that week.
Another analysis will deconstruct the value chain and how information is passed up and down it. If this can be made more efficient, it could help you flog more products.
Devise a business strategy
If you're working in a business where the strategy isn't sufficiently articulated to be able to harness IT to it, there's a problem.
You can't talk about business-driven IT strategy and then step away because there isn't a business strategy. At that point you have to facilitate it.
Call a workshop of senior business leaders to examine the last 10 major decisions the company has made and infer business strategy from these.
Present this back to the CEO and ask for confirmation. Or facilitate a more formal articulation of business strategy that will be useful to the entire business.
Call in a business school
The advantage of calling in a third party to do the facilitation is that they are independent and impartial with no axe to grind.
The findings will be respected and there will be co-operation from your colleagues. The external partner can then be responsible for facilitating workshops, organising the interviews of all major stakeholders and.
The usual choices are business schools or consultants. They can flag up where there is consensus and where there are disconnects - and if so, how to bridge them.
Get the timing right
You have to judge the tempo of the organisation and make a call about what phase it is in, when deciding whether to follow, formulate or fine-tune business strategy.
If a company is in the throes of major business transformation, the board won't be in the mood to reflect on and create a business strategy.
If the organisation is in a phase of relative stability, then a phase of continuous improvement is more appropriate. If technology is an impediment, then put it through the usual filter of the business benefit case and then present your proposal.
Get sponsorship from the CEO
If you take a key role in formulating business strategy, make sure it is backed and sponsored from the very top.
Never send out any formal communication to do with business strategy signed by you — it's an invitation for jealousies to fester at best, or sabotage at worst.
Any invitation to executives to get involved must come from the CEO's office, even if you personally write, organise and send the document. When you have taken a lead role as facilitator, don't be tempted to impose your judgement.
Even if you're right, if no-one is listening, you might as well leave the room.
Keep your ear to the ground
A lot of aligning IT or making IT a business driver is about detective work.
Hanging out by the water cooler and keeping abreast of intelligence is vital to spot where the business is weak and where opportunities for change.
Canvassing support for your business proposal should be low-key: get meetings with the opinion-makers and run your ideas by them.
The most important part of any modern CIO's job is staying in regular contact with your colleagues and keeping your ear to the ground.
When the business changes
Business strategy will adapt and change, sometimes in dramatic circumstances such as takeover or acquisition. The most important thing to remember in a situation of flux is that continuity is everything.
Research by McKinsey shows over half of acquisitions fail to add any value, usually because they lose the faith of staff or customers.
So it's crucial to work out how IT systems will support the ongoing business during the transition.
If there's no M&A, keep on doing the rain checks to keep abreast of incremental change.
Take executives to the technology
Educating the board is a must. One approach is to fly all non-executives to India, or wherever IT is done off-shore, to meet the team and to familiarise them with the breadth and scope of the IT operation.
It's a question of saying, 'Do you want to come and meet your company?'
Then when you ask them make a business decision, they make it from a position of knowledge, not trust, which can foster a more positive approach towards IT investment.
The CIO Panel
Professor Sharm Manwani, Henley Business School and former IT director, Electrolux
Professor Chris Edwards, Cranfield School of Management
Dr Ben Booth, CIO, Ipsos Mori
David Jack, CIO, TheTrainLine