What is Your ICT4D Strategy?

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In a mobile-first and cloud-first world, where information comes in torrents and connectivity gets ever-closer to ubiquitous it can be tempting to assume that the technology landscape is evolving too rapidly to justify a multi-year ICT4D strategy.
This point was argued in The Exponential Organization claiming that the 5-year strategy is “an obsolete instrument” not only for technology but for organizations overall, suggesting strategic planning is at odds with agility.
With the rapid pace of technology change comes an ever-growing array of options, sector-specific tools, and innovative applications of ICT to development and aid challenges.  ICT4D practitioners can quickly get caught chasing the latest shiny object, traipsing from one project to the next implementing one-off solutions.
This is not agility, it is simply being reactive – a feat that becomes increasingly difficult as technology change accelerates.
A strategy provides a framework that helps bring order to the chaos of constant change.  With buy-in of senior leadership and lots of validation from field teams an ICT4D strategy focuses investments and helps set priorities.
Four practical steps to form an ICT4D strategy

  1. Prepare
    1. Assess landscape – what are the broad trends both within the relief and development sector and the technology industry at large (the SDG ICT Playbook provides a well-structured way to look at technology building blocks through a development lens)
    2. Identify key opportunities – what are the business drivers for the use of ICT in programs
    3. Carefully select collaborators – strategy cannot successfully be formed in isolation; at the risk of death by committee this is the time to bring together program and technology experts (ICT4D champions and skeptics alike)
  2. Scaffold
    1. Define what ICT4D means to the organization – establish common vocabulary as interpretations of ICT4D vary wildly
    2. State a vision and guiding principles – define an overall, transformative vision that aims high; set principles to serve as guardrails
    3. Establish the timeframe – what duration the ICT4D strategy will cover, when it will be updated next; ideally align this with the organization’s overall strategy period but consider working in what may be shorter increments (2-3 years)
    4. Draft themes – inventory potential themes among collaborators; research and dialogue about each; gradually refine the top few
    5. Recommend directions – within those themes, sketch out high level thinking around organizational changes, investments and focus
  3. Detail
    1. Develop results framework – technologists outside of the development sector do not typically speak in log frames but it is a model well known to program staff; use this framework to speak the same language; putting detail below general themes will yield a lot of discussion, plan ample time here
    2. Prioritize initiatives – there will be more good ideas than can be accommodated; while the vision should be ambitious, the initiatives should be a stretch but achievable; stick with core initiatives despite demand to add special-interest items
  4. Communicate
    1. Socialize – Take every opportunity to get the strategy in front of different audiences at all levels within the organization. Aggressively invite comments and iteratively refine the strategy.  Don’t be afraid to seek external input – remember there will always be far broader expertise outside your organization than within; don’t make the strategy proprietary
    2. Package – Once the strategy is fully baked, create simple ways to convey it such as infographics or video clips

Two key ingredients to an ICT4D strategy
Following these practical steps alone will set up a great story … to share at the next fail fest.  There are 2 more ingredients to success in the secret sauce:

  1. Sponsorship – A grassroots attempt to create an ICT4D strategy will not yield the level of buy-in, visibility and cohesiveness necessary to be transformative. Find executive sponsors to help champion this among the senior leadership team.  Review progress with sponsors and other senior leaders frequently; refine and refine again based on their input.
  2. Partnership – Arguably anything about ICT4D requires partnership between programs and IT. Forming a strategy must be a true partnership – an effort co-led by both.

With these 4 steps plus 2 secret ingredients your ICT4D strategy is ready to execute.  Do not treat this as a watershed event.  Rather, as the strategy is taking shape, begin to redirect and influence priorities to align with it.  Don’t forget to measure results – establish indicators for how progress will be quantified and be sure there is a realistic way to obtain the data necessary to report these metrics.
Finally, routinely review and adjust strategic initiatives.  Allow the strategy to provide guardrails and a framework while implementing strategic initiatives in an agile manner.  Be sure to revisit the strategy with senior leadership, practitioners and other stakeholders; adjust as conditions warrant but aim to keep the high level strategic objectives in place.
The pace of technology change and innovation will continue to accelerate.  This rate of change is not a reason to forego strategic planning but rather demands that organizations have a thoughtful ICT4D strategy instead of bouncing from one new thing to the next.
By Steve Hellen, Director of ICT4D & GIS at Catholic Relief Services
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