IT Road Maps

Humans love maps! I'm no exception. Whether its a google map or something sketched on a napkin. Life just seems to be a lot easier when you have a map guiding you through your journey. IT is also no exception. Having an IT road map is one of the best tools an IT leader can have in his or her toolbox.

First, IT road maps are great communication tools. You're able to capture key ideas into something that can be shared and followed. This is called "vision". By communicating through a map team members, supervisors, coworkers, etc are able to "see" the goals and how to get there. The map provides a basic human need for laying out a nice comfy plan of where you are today and how you're going to get somewhere in the future.

Having an IT road map is also a great communication tool for IT leaders when communicating up the chain of command. This has been very beneficial in helping my upper management learn more about the IT strategy for the business. Having a visual for CEOs, CxOs, or any other senior management allows you to collaborate as a team without having death by power point. It fosters a good discussion about what has been accomplished, what needs to be accomplished, and how long things can take. Also, once senior management becomes used to seeing this map periodically they are more likely to ask questions and help provide feedback for your strategy. In essence, it lets them prioritize and gives you a clear path in aligning IT priorities with the business.

So, what is an IT road map and how do I get one?

Well, the good news (and maybe bad news) about IT road maps is that they're always a work in progress. This was something I didn't understand at my last technical job. The road maps passed around seemed to be something mysterious that seemed to predict the future by some all knowing IT god. However, once I realized that its a simple document that changes based on new information, trends, goals, technologies, etc it's really a snapshot of what IT leaders see now and perceive to be possible in the not so distant future.

The simplest form of an IT road map is a timeline. I've kept my timelines around a 5 year time frame that usually consists of the last 2 years while looking ahead 3 years. If you're brand new at a company you may not have this luxury, but nonetheless its pretty easy to start showing accomplishments over your first 6 months.

I've found that Microsoft Visio has a timeline template that works decently well. There may be other tools out there, but this one prints well and has enough snazzy graphics that you can have a nice clean timeline built without much effort.

Like most things in life worth doing, it takes hard work to build a good IT road map. This work is really the core of an IT leader's skill set and will require lots of brain work. I tend to visit the document once per month or as often as ideas change to keep it up to date. Each visit is usually a few hours of review, adjustments, and adding new ideas. This is the knowledge work that you piece together from all your conferences, trade magazines, business strategy meetings, and sometimes a wild ass guess.

Other benefits of an IT road map:
It's a good reality check for comparing what you thought might happen and what actually happened. For example, if you thought a project would be completed by a certain date and it's a month behind. This helps build lessons learned for schedules and execution.
Budget planning is much easier when you can look at the 10 projects planned for next year.
Collaborating with folks outside the company. Sales people, community leaders, joint-ventures, parent companies, etc all can benefit from learning about your IT strategy through an easy to read map. This has helped me communicate when trying to discuss future projects with all sorts of people outside the IT department.
It shows to others that you know whats going on. This may sound small, but having one more piece of credibility could be mean the difference in your existance.

Other items that you might want on an IT road map:

Company growth. Showing company growth next to your IT projects is helpful for understanding the scaling and direction of the company. To get this information, I went to HR and pulled the last 10 years of employee head counts and came up with a simple linear project timeline. I just throw this timeline at the bottom of the document for reference. It's obviously not a full out statistical analysis, but it should help in understanding where the organization is going. Is it growing rapidly, holding steady, or shrinking?
Project dependencies. Depending on the discussion, it can be helpful to show projects that are dependent on another project. This is great for funding discussions! Explaining why you can't have server virtualization without upgrading your storage system is much easier. I usually accomplish this by placing small icons on projects that have dependencies. I'm sure you could look into other charts for this, but its worked well for me in the past.
High level topics. I include a third timeline below the main IT projects timeline that shows "concepts" or "themes" for the year. For example, "Business Continuity" or "Unified Communications". This allows for a simple timeline with 3 or 4 major topics per year that are what I consider the major headlines. If we can accomplish some of these headlines then we're on track. I've tried to keep this content at a minimum since it's easy to reach information overload if you end up with 3, 4, or even 5 timelines going on in the same page. This simple timeline has been helpful in getting a high level picture of what the year is all about and what future years are possibly going to look like.

Good luck building your IT road map and remember it will take a LOT of knowledge work with you and and possibly with your team. Enjoy!

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