Maximizing Effectiveness of IT Steering Committees

Ann All

Just yesterday I wrote about IT steering committees, citing Computer Economics' finding that such committees were the most mature of 15 IT management practices it looked at in a recent survey, with nearly 80 percent of the organizations it surveyed saying they have steering committees and 60 percent saying they make full use of them. I was somewhat heartened by this finding, as the practice clearly works best with a close partnership between IT organizations and business units. The optimist in me likes to think this means companies are beginning to see the importance of these kinds of partnerships.


The pessimist in me (maybe realist is a better word) knows creating and establishing these kinds of partnerships can be quite difficult even when companies are committed to the idea and nearly impossible when such efforts meet with indifference or downright resistance.


Writing for Information Management, consultant Ara Trembly lists some of his concerns about the effectiveness of IT steering committees. His two primary concerns are that CFOs may not sign off on a steering committee's budget recommendations and that committee structures do not work well when quick decisions are needed. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, I would think an obvious way to deal with possible CFO resistance would be to invite him/her to be a member of the committee. As for the second issue, Trembly writes:

... Sometimes we just don't have the time to allow 20 individuals to ruminate on and debate important issues, and that is increasingly true in our current market environment, where long-range planning has become an antiquated term.

Wow. I hope long-range planning hasn't become an antiquated term. While market shifts often require companies to make rapid decisions, they also need to be able to revise their plans midstream when necessary. Creating an agile environment that allows for this kind of change requires exactly the kind of big-picture thinking that should occur at steering committee meetings.


The perception of steering committees as slow and inflexible is a common one, I wrote earlier this year citing the experiences of O'Reilly Media CIO Jonathan Reichental, Ph.D. Reichental stressed that technology roadmaps "should be as fluid as your organization's strategy" and should change when strategy shifts, even if it means delaying or shutting down projects. O'Reilly Media's governance review board strives to achieve a 40/60 ratio between maintenance work and investment activities.


At a recent conference, I sat at a table where several CIOs were discussing their IT steering committees. A problem mentioned by all was business colleagues who didn't think they could spare the time for IT-related discussions. I found some suggestions I think could help in a Computerworld article filled with advice from four CIOs on how to keep steering committees on track and get maximum value from them. Among the tips I especially liked:

  • Have controllers from business units sign off on proposals before they go before the committee. That way, weak proposals are weeded out early on.
  • Make the committee's charter maximizing overall organizational performance, not cutting IT costs.
  • Consider a two-tiered structure in which an executive committee ranks projects in terms of importance and a lower-level committee of line managers and IT staff handle specific project details.
  • Distribute updates about routine projects to committee members, but don't discuss them at meetings. Reserve meeting discussions for more strategic projects.
  • Distribute project proposals in advance so committee members can review them before meetings.

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