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Is Communications Planning Worth It? The Alternative to It Certainly Isn't.

If you don't know where you're going, any road will lead you there. A truism in travel; a timely reminder for business. As essential as planning is to the health of a business, many companies drift along on the high seas of technology without a clue as to why they do things a certain way. "We've always done it that way" are the six deadliest words that can be stenciled on the lifeboats. In recent discussions with some major communications user, I discovered that their telecommunications planning however, were in the lower end of the spectrum.

Strategic planning is a concept that has been hammered into us since our very first business class and, continues to receive a place of prominence in our corporate catalog of euphemisms. Most companies pay homage to some sort of strategic planning. Some even have whole departments devoted to planning. Why then does strategic planning for communications, which is usually among the top expenses in a major corporation, not receive the attention it deserves?

Before we look at some of the reasons it doesn't, and explore some of the ways it could, let's make sure we understand the base line. Strategic planning implies forethought knowledge, positioning, direction and goals. It suggests that we understand the environment in which we operate, the limitations imposed by that environment and the things that must happen to allow us to reach our objectives. Thus, strategic planning becomes a tool for line managers, sometimes aided by specialist staff, to get their arms around their company's communications needs.

One of the major barriers to the application of strategic planning in the area of communications is that top management hasn't viewed communications as a vehicle to solve business problems. They have considered telecom a necessary evil to be controlled (expense focus), not as a potential doorway to new markets or better customer relatons (revenue or service focus). Therefore, planning, if any, has centered on what hardware, what software and how much.

Vendors are partly to blame, but not totally. They sell what we will buy. And in most cases we are buying hardware and software, not solutions to business problems. Many of the systems sold today will solve problems, but that's coincidentally inherent in the product.

Some companies don't do communications planning because they have no strategy. They are willing to accept whatever the marketplace brings them, rather than prodding manufacturers to create something to address their needs. Assuming that the market five years hence will have something that fits their requirements, they go on their way planning manufacturing capacity, personnel levels and ad campaigns, without much of a thought about the thread that ties everything together.

Planning take time, requires goal setting, demands awareness of alternatives and accepts no less than commitment to excellence of pursuit. It is not an event; planning is a procress. And it begins with knowing where we want to go as a company, or in other words, understanding our business strategy. A karate expert doesn't see the surface of the board or or brick; he "sees" his hand going through it. A pitcher doesn't look at the batter when he throws; he is concentrating on the catcher's glove. We need to "see" our goals, too. Focusing on where we need (want) to be then, is the first step. If we can't quite see the eventual goal, we should set intermediate goals.

There are many reasons to set goals and establish plans, and many problems can arise without them. Let me just touch on one potential problem area that has at least three consequencs which could have you updating your resume.

Without a communications plan integrated into your business objectives, decisions can sneak up and catch you with inadequate lead time. The first thing that happens is you might miss your due date. Never mind that management didn't give you enough notice. Second in order to meet your due date, you have to settle. But for less than an optimum system. But that's OK. You'll be able to explain to management why they don't have their display phones and why customers are getting a busy signal. And Finally, you lose all bargaining power because of your time crunch. Not only can you not negotiate for a lower price, you very likely may have to pay a preium.

Ah, but maybe you just don't have time to plan? Solicit all Departments

In setting a strategic direction for communications, input should be solicited from all departments. Is the marketing department doing something with advertising that will generate heavier traffic? What are you company's financial circumstances and goals? Should you buy now or wait until next fiscal year? How can you integrate your data processing department's goals? Do your expansion plans involve a move during the life of your system? Is personnel under orders to reduce staff count? What are senior management's ideas about outside perceptions of your use of technology?

The answer to these questions and dozens more like them will help us focus our game plan and establish our strategic goals.

Once we have our goal firmly in mind, be it long range or short, the next step is to determine our current deficit. Can what we have grow or evolve to what we need, or will it be obsolete? For purposes of this discussion, let's assume that you need more than you have.

Since we now know where we are and where we want to be, the defined path should be automatic. Right? If you believe that, I've got some land....

Definition is only the beginning. The general path may be implied, but is never a given. To say that it is would be like saying there is only one way to drive from New York to Los Angeles. "Best" is open to interpretation. There is no one best way.

Developing alternatives becomes the next step in your planning process. For any given problem (goal), there will be several possible solutions. Some will be too costly. Others won't be expandible. But we'll touch on that later. Now you're only concerned with identifying alternatives. This is where brainstorming with other departments can be very productive. If your company currently doesn't have interpartmental think sessions, perhaps you can suggest one.

During this session, never pooh-pooh anyone's ideas. Be supportive, encouraging and diplomatic and you will draw people out. Do a fast-draw on someone's idea and you won't have to worry about running out of paper. Even if an idea has no applicability or you've already thought it through and know it won't work, keep quiet. Write everything down. Remember the story about flies and honey and vinegar.

Now that you have you list of possible solutions, a thorough analysis of their merits and a priorization of their cost/value ratio is appropriate. Here is where you can apply the test of reality to your list. Don't do it too quickly though. Some ideas need time to germinate. And don't do it with an eye toward who made the suggestion. Ideas are not respecters of persons. Good ideas can come from executives too. Keep asking the why?/why-not? question. Remember, we're trying to break the "we've-always-done-it-that-way" mold. This is alos not the place you eliminate ideas because you think they might be too expensive. A revenue-generating or cost-cutting idea may more than pay for itself no matter how much it costs, thus turning your operation from a cost center to a profit center. Objectivity Is the Goal

With your perception of the relative priority of "targets" reduced to writing, it would be wise to circulate your list among the think-tankers for comments. Pride of authorship has no place in this exercise. Objectivity is the goal. If it's good for the company, it makes the first round cut. If it isn't, it's gone.

A financial-feasibility test must be applied at this point. If the solution costs more than the problem, it's a good bet that your CEO won't sign off on it, and you can safely scrap it.

Let's review. So far, we've made the argument that stategic planning has a place in telecommunications. We've seen that the place to begin is with an understanding of our business objectives. We have also seen some of the implications of not planning. Drawing input from all departments was a key step in the process, as was an analysis of our current situation. Next came an identification of alternatives, and a prioritization of their cost/value ratios. Applying a financial feasibility test brings us back to our planning flow.

What we now have in hand is a prioritized statement of our targets, an understanding of how they fit with overall corporate strategy, and a feeling of confidence that we have a good grasp on where we are heading and, most importantly, why.

Your in-place systems either will or will not address your defined needs. If they don't, you have one more step before you proceed. More decisions have been halted due to poor financial timing than for probably any other single reason. A little research at this point can save you a lot of time and work if the answer is no. If you get the go-ahead, determine what your range of options is. Can you purchase or should you lease? Is ITC important to you? Can you improve the company's tax position by changin the contract or by signing it in a different state?

It probably seems to you at this point that you've done a pile of work without much show for it. On the contrary, the knowledge you hav gained about your company's goals and the strategic communications plan you have assembled are among the most valuable tools you can use to carry out your trade as a professional communications manager. I suggest to you that what you have done thus far is precisely what adds "professional" to your title.

OK, we've gathered information and compiled it into a business communications strategy. What next?

We must now decide exactly what we need in our system and reduce the needs to a request for proposal. Besides the basic equipment definitions, there are many business issues that must be addressed as well. For example, you'll want a sense of vendor commitment in such areas as response time to repair cells, lead time for moves and changes, and future adaptability of hardware and software.

You will also want to define certain terms that are often taken or granted, such as cutover and acceptance. Writing a very specific contract is probably as important as choosing the right system. Performance criteria, unless spelled out, can default to whatever a vendor can get by with. You must establish accountability. Insist on favorable terms. Do not let yourself be bullied into signing a contrract that doesn't cover your bases. Most "standard" contracts are drawn to maximize the vendor's flexibility. Remember who the buyer is and exercise your position.

You have just completed your analysis of the proposals, selected your vendor and signed the contract. It will be smooth sailing all the way through acceptance. Don't laugh. With planning, it can happen. But you can't sit back and relax. You must control the vendor. Establish a tracking system with milestone events, dates and responsibilities. You did put penalty clauses in the contract, didn't you?

there are some other other incidentals to consider: user documentation and new directories, training coordination of services from the telephone company. By this time, you're probably way ahead of me and have already made these a part of your plan, Good. Let's move to the last step in planning.

"The best laid plans ..." will not be a sufficient answer if your system dies and you don't have a contingency plan. You have done all that is humanly possible to ensure that your system is on time and within budget, but what if...?

Redundancy, batery backup, on-site engineer/technicians and proper testing and cutover procedures can all be a part of your contingency planning. The best insurance is to have your plan solidly in place and keep gentle pressure on your vendor. But sometimes even this isn't enough. Regardless of the planning, systems do crash. How quickly you and your vendors respond will be management's primary measuring device against which your judgment will be held. But think how shaky your position might be without having done the proper planning.

Lets end on a positive note. Planning is not something to dread. On the contrary, it is a tool to make our job easier, make progress more apparent and help circumvent problems. The rewards are intangible as well. Effective planning produces a sense of accomplishment and confidence about what we are doing. Smooth communications, like a smooth meeting, doesn't just happen. It happens because somebody like you has recognized the value of planning and invested the necessary time and mental energy to see it through.

So the answer to the original question is an unqualified yes. But now the question I leave you with is this: Will you accept the responsibility for creating your company's master communications plan and commit yourself to developing the strategies and tactics necessary to move from the theoretical arena to the real world?
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Thornton, M.
Publication:Communications News
Date:Dec 1, 1984
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