Strategic Thoughts

Notes from a discussion led by Brian Hopkins at the Federal CIO XML Working Group Meeting, 14 February 2001

Strategic Planning: From Vision to Reality:
Vision Mission CSF’s Objectives Strategies Goals Tactics

The above flow chart illustrates a method for moving from having a vague notion of what needs to be accomplished, to developing solid, effective tactics for accomplishing what needs to be done. The following notes provide some thoughts regarding each of these.

Vision: Having a clear, and agreed upon vision of exactly what the group hopes to accomplish should be the first step in developing any strategic plan. While some of this can be extracted from the current XML WG charter, recommend that it be spelled out more clearly.

Mission: "...accelerate, facilitate and catalyze the effective and appropriate implementation of XML technology". This simple, but effective statement was taken from the XML WG charter. It effectively captures why the group meets, but exactly what is this acceleration hoping to accomplish? See vision.

Critical Success Factors (CSFs): With a clear vision and a mission that focuses action towards achieving the vision, it is often tempting to get tangled in the multiple strategic paths lead to specific tactics for achieving components of the vision. To simplify matters, an effective technique is to identify a few simple Critical Success Factors that will make or break the effort’s success. These can be thought of as meta-strategies. They are useful because, for a large, complex problem, it is much easier to identify CSFs than it is to begin identifying specific strategies. Some recommended CSFs for the XML WG might be:

  1. Focus on highest payoff areas
  2. Have a clear understanding of the many ways XML can be used, and which ways are appropriate to big federal problems
  3. Provide beneficial services/consortium at low or no cost to participants to promote voluntary participation
  4. Focus on visibility and ground up implementation
  5. Establish motivation to collaborate
  6. Effectively use Federal CIO council’s power to promote and recommend standards
  7. Start small and simple, but be able to grow
Objectives:
    1. Develop XML Best practices and Recommended Standards
    2. Develop Partnerships with Key Industry and Public Groups Developing XML Standards and Specifications
    3. Develop Partnerships with Existing Federal "Vertical" Communities to Accelerate the Delivery of XML Benefits, and
    4. Conduct "Results-Oriented" Education and Outreach to promote good XML practices
Objectives can be thought of a sweeping statements that further define what is trying to be accomplished, but do not have the characteristics of goals (in that they are non-specific, hard to measure, and often out side the realm of achievability). After a clear vision, concise mission, and make or break factors (CSFs) are determined, then setting some objectives is easier. The above objectives are taken from the XML WG charter. I added in the italicized portion of number 4 because I see shoddy XML engineering practices rampant. Practices such as using terse abbreviated element names, and embedding application specific metadata, such as SQL statements, as attribute values of elements should be avoided, in my opinion.

During the discussion the questions of how to know what element names to use for tags was brought up. The overwhelming consensus it to start with some existing standardized set of data elements, rather than make up your own. I recommend the xml.gov portal provide links to sets of standardized data elements available from which schemas can be generated. I think this will greatly promote some standardization for agencies looking to develop XML and wondering what tags to use. Representative from the ebXML consortium discussed the current Core Components sub-effort in that initiative that aims at establishing just such a library of core data elements for use within ebXML business processes. This promises to be a good resource, however the question becomes, can we afford to wait?

Strategies, Goals and Tactics: Once objectives are set, specific strategies can be developed for achieving objectives. Then specific, measurable, achievable goals can be determined and from these goals, actions (tactics) fall out. It is very tempting to start thinking tactically before all the hard ground work has been done; we’ve all seen unorganized "strategy" sessions wander about for hours thinking tactically, when what should have been happening is work on vision, mission and CSFs!

Last, I’d like to share some (arguable, off course) rules that seem to hold up pretty well when it comes to XML and standards. My recommendation is that we accept these as unavoidable by-products of our political system, and design our strategy that takes advantage of these instead of trying to wish these away.

Axiom: Bottom Line: XML.GOV must effectively use its power to recommend standards, and solicit voluntary participation. It can do that by providing free/cheap services and a free/cheap exposure for those activities assisting in the accomplishment of working group objectives.

I hope these rambling thoughts prove at least some help. I look forward to working on this some more and welcome comments.

Brian Hopkins (bhopkins@logicon.com)

Reference: Building Corporate Portals with XML, Finklestein & Aiken, 2000.