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Strategic Essence: The Missing Link in Business Information Systems: Part 5 -- Discovering Strategic Essence

Determining Strategic Essence

Links to previous articles at the end of this article

It is one thing to write about Strategic Essence.  It is another to accurately identify it.

The interesting thing about Strategic Essence is that many times it is not known or is misdiagnosed.


The Daimler Chrysler Debacle -- A classic case of strategic mismatch

"A huge mismatch." That's how University of Chicago Graduate Business School Professor James Schrager describes the 1998 merger of Daimler and Chrysler (DCX). Schrager, president of Great Lakes Group, a South Bend (Ind.) strategic consultancy, is an active consultant to a variety of auto-centric companies.

Schrager, who was named by BusinessWeek in 2000 as one of the top teachers in the University of Chicago's business program, recently spoke by phone with Special Correspondent Ann Therese Palmer about the strategic problems newly announced DaimlerChrysler CEO Dieter Zetsche faces, with Jurgen Schrempp stepping down on Dec. 31 (see BW, 08/15/05, "Dark Days at Daimler").

Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: Why were Schrempp's deals a mistake?

A: They were a mistake because the strategies - for Mercedes and Chrysler and all of its associated brands -- were so different. For years, Mercedes' car brand sat at the top of the world as far as prestige, durability, and reliability. Starting in the mid-1970s through the mid-'90s, with the iconic 450-series, it was the ultimate car brand. It was the finest-engineered car you could buy.

Contrast this with Chrysler. During the same period, it was constantly looking for what rabbit it needed to pull out of its hat to stay alive. Were it not for the minivan, introduced in 1982, Chrysler would have been gone sometime in the 1980s. Schrempp has done a great deal of damage to a company that had a rock-solid reputation by cobbling it together with a company that slithers from crisis to crisis. We have a huge mismatch here.

Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine

This is perhaps THE textbook example of a situation in which failure to understand the strategic essence of the two companies led to what was an extremely unwise business decision.  A decision that clear understanding of strategic essence WOULD have prevented.

The method outlined in this article is a simple way of surfacing the strategic essence of your organization, provided it is administered by an impartial and highly experienced external facilitator

The failed marriage of Daimler Benz and Chrysler, is a classic example of massive damage caused by ignoring strategic essence.  Daimler Benz (Mercedes) has a driver of technical excellence, Chrysler has a driver of technical innovation.

Mercedes also innovates and they both make motor vehicles so it looked like a logical match.  In fact these differences in Strategic Essence were fundamental pointers to the failure of the merger long before it started.

Thus we have the interesting paradox, the executives of an organization, the custodians of the strategic essence, often do not know what the Strategic Essence is.

As an organization matures and new executives are recruited they frequently ignore the Strategic Essence, or misdiagnose it or do not even know it exists.  The decline of many once successful organizations and even nations, can be attributed to decisions that cut across or undermine the strategic essence.

Since Strategic Essence is frequently an intuitive consequence of organizational founders accurately reading a market need and then meeting it - Strategic Essence is not necessarily ever made explicit.

Even when the Strategic Essence has been made explicit, many modern managers who have been raised in an environment that suggests that strategy is invented and can be re-invented at whim, think nothing of changing course.  This, despite a robust body of knowledge which evidences that the strategic essence of an organization should be clearly defined and then refined with focus and more focus and more focus -- the strategic essence virtually NEVER changes.

An example of strategic misalignment causing business information systems project failure

The client was a highly successful specialist freight forwarding and clearing company with a market share of around 10%.

They had carved a niche for themselves with a service promise which could be summarized as "if we mess up and the clearing of your shipment is delayed for ANY reason, we will make good your loss NO questions asked".

I was called in to advise them with regard to a business systems project that had been stalled for a year.

As I interviewed the executive team I asked my standard questions in order to determine the strategic essence of the business, and lifted out the service promise stated above.  I also asked questions to understand the problems with the project.

The answers with regard to the service promise all focussed on exactly the same statement of excellence.  The answers with regard to the project all related to sloppy and poor service from the implementers, things that did NOT work the way they should, etc.

I then interviewed the owner of the software company, based halfway around the globe, his strategic goal was to become the biggest software company servicing my client's market, in other words his goal was to service the 90% of my client's market that did NOT offer such an extreme service promise.

There was a fundamental strategic misfit.  The client wanted quality, the supplier wanted quantity and was NOT concerned about quality.

At the end of the second day of my investigation I sat with the sponsoring executive and outlined my findings.  "The lights have just gone on!" he exclaimed, "now it all makes perfect sense!"

The next morning he cancelled the project and we set about interviewing other software providers.

The third software provider that we interviewed started his presentation by saying "we are committed to service excellence, if our software ever causes you to be late on your service promise we will make good your loss, NO questions asked!" it was clear that THIS was the correct software company.

This is an example of how strategic essence is critical in making a software or system buying decision. In fact, it is far more important than software functionality and all the other hype that generally confuses executives and results in inappropriate buying decisions.

This article outlines the method that I use to determine strategic essence in an interview situation as part of my routine investigations into failed and sub-optimal business information systems projects and also use at the commencement of any project to assist a client to procure a new system


When things are going badly, return to the essence.

But what if we never consciously defined the Strategic Essence?

Or if the old guard have left and we no longer know it?

Strategic essence leaves its fingerprints and tell-tale signature ALL over the organization, you just need to know where to look for it.

This article discusses the method that I have evolved for determining strategic essence and which I use consistently when I commence a new engagement of any sort and which you can apply in your organization with an appropriate facilitator:

1. Experienced strategic facilitator

Appoint an experienced strategic facilitator, the less they know about your organization the better.

This person should be research oriented with good listening and good analytical skills and a thorough understanding of strategy.

Using an internal facilitator you run the risk of their judgment being clouded by what they know or think they know.  Always remember that the executives of Daimler Benz got it wrong.

You need to find a facilitator who has not worked with your organization before.

The facilitator should be mature, experienced, worked with diverse organizations in diverse industries with diverse strategic drivers.  In fact, probably at least in their fifties if not older.  You are looking for the maturity and depth of experience that will allow them to hear the heartbeat of the organization and facilitate to achieve clarity.

2. Interview each executive one on one

Have the facilitator interview each executive starting with the Chairman, when applicable, and then the Chief Executive Officer, followed by the rest of the executive team.  If the executive team have only recently joined the organization and the organization is mature it may be desirable to interview retired executives.  If the founder and founding management team are retired but still available it is advisable to interview them.

I recommend a one hour one-on-one interview with each person selected, typically between five and ten people in total.

I also recommend that the people being interviewed are not prepped for the interview in order to avoid discussions that can skew the result.  Ideally the interviewees should hear the questions for the first time in the interview.

3. Ask the Critical Question: "Please will you tell me the essence of this organization and how it thrives?"

"Please will you tell me the essence of this organization and how it thrives? is the fundamental question.  It may be necessary to ask supplementary questions such as "how does the organization differentiate itself from its competitors?",  "how has the organization grown to its present size?", etc.

It is vital that the person conducting the interview understands the question, understands strategy and understands strategic essence so that they can facilitate the interview effectively.

If this process is being embarked on as part of an exercise to diagnose some aspect of the business that is NOT functioning as expected, such as a failed or sub-optimal business information system implementation; or in preparation for embarking on a new business information system acquisition and implementation; then questions relating to this component can follow the strategic essence questions.

4. Listen carefully and "active listen"

It is vital that the person conducting the interview listens intently and active listens.  This assists the person being interviewed to dig deep and, in many cases they DO need to dig deep.  In some cases the answer may be immediately apparent to the person being interviewed, but frequently I find that they need to scratch their heads and think deeply and test these thoughts.

By "active listen" I mean the technique of feeding back to the person being interviewed what the person conducting the interview understands them to be saying -- " I am hearing you say that ... ".

5. Take lots of notes

In my experience this point is central to achieving a quality outcome.  I have found that most people share more and dig deeper when the person conducting the interview is taking detailed notes.  It is almost paradoxical, but, in reality, most executives will disclose more and dig deeper when they have the experience that they are being "heard" and that the person conducting the interview regards what they have said as being sufficiently important to take notes.  Taking notes is also a sign of respect towards the person being interviewed.

I have had executives disclose the most remarkable things in this type of interview while I am taking copious notes.

Clearly there must be trust and most organizations will require the person conducting the interview to sign a non-disclosure and confidentiality agreement.  The notes should not be shared with anyone except the interviewer and the interviewee and should remain in the custody of the person who conducted the interviews, or be destroyed once the strategic essence has been fully documented and agreed to.

6. Interview others and further research

In some cases, as alluded to above, it may prove necessary to interview other people, long serving staff members, retired directors, founders, etc.  The goal is to obtain an accurate and reliable definition of the strategic essence together with appropriate elaboration.   In many cases, by the end of the fourth or fifth interview a clear pattern starts to emerge and by the time the entire top team have been interviewed there is frequently complete certainty as to what the strategic essence is.

In contrast, in the case of an organization that has been in existence for many years and is currently not achieving its historic levels of performance, it may be necessary to undertake deeper research to get to the roots of the strategic essence.

7. Analyse and Synthesize

The person who conducted the interviews must then, based on a clear analysis of all the interviews, formulate a concise statement of the strategic essence and any associated elaboration.

This may be supported by additional comments and observations but these are discretionary.

The fundamental goal of this engagement is a concise statement of "the essence of the organization and how it thrives".  The rest is secondary and can be elaborated on in time.

If an executive differs with the CEO then, unless the CEO has just arrived, the CEO's view should receive particular attention, particularly if the CEO is the founder or has been there for many years.

If the CEO or any executive has only recently joined the organization it is possible that they will be far off the mark.  Quite frequently new executives bring a worldview that is based on past experience and attempt to force-fit it to the new organization.

This will seldom if ever work and can be extremely dangerous.

In other cases new executives who have done their homework may have a better sense of the Strategic Essence than other longer serving executives.

There is no absolute rule.

8. Present and Refine

Once the interviewer has produced a final outcome this should be tabled to the Chief Executive or Chairman and other senior executives for review and refinement.

Frequently, as in the example above, there is an "Aha!" moment when the finding is disclosed.

9. Apply

Refer to the previous articles on Strategic Essence for some suggestions on applying Strategic Essence.


I offer a concise light touch intervention based on the method outlined above which I have been applying successfully for over a decade and which is a refinement of a method that I have applied for over two decades.

Click here to email me for more information.

Yours faithfully,


Dr James Robertson PrEng

James A Robertson and Associates Limited
Assisting clients to thrive through effective and efficient application of Business Information Systems

Articles published so far in the article series to which this email refers:

Strategic Essence -- The Missing Link in Business Information Systems

A discussion of how strategic essence should inform ALL business improvement projects and particularly business information system projects.  This thread discusses the analysis of strategy, the planning of strategy and feeding strategy through into business system specifications and the management of business improvement projects.  Articles to date include:

1: Strategy Defined
2: Differentiation
3: The Essence IS Different
4: Strategic Essence is the Point of Departure
5: Determining Strategic Essence

The Real Issues in Business Information Systems

A discussion as to why business information systems fail to deliver on expectations or fail outright.  Coupled to discussion of the Critical Factors that must be taken into account in order to achieve successful outcomes.  This thread is progressively discussing more hands-on specifics of achieving high value outcomes and builds on the Strategic Essence series.  Articles to date include:

1: Introduction
2: Mythology and Lack of Executive Custody
3: Lack of Strategic Alignment and Lack of Precision Configuration

Strategically Enriching your Business Information Systems

Discussion of practical specific measures that can be taken in order to greatly improve the information yield of business information systems at both the operational and executive strategic level.  A number of simple steps that can be taken immediately and more complex measures that can be taken over time. 

This thread is discussing increasing business system and data warehouse value yield using techniques that lead to significantly improved business intelligence capability, including support for the ability to "obtain answers to questions we had not previously thought to ask ".  This builds on the content in the Strategic Essence and Real Issues threads.  Articles to date include:

1: Introduction
2: Principles of Data Engineering
3: Steps in Applying these Recommendations

Robust Business Information Systems Procurement

In order to fully apply the methods and principles discussed in the threads above with regard to new systems it is vital that a robust and effective approach to procurement is applied.  This requires a tough procurement approach directed at achieving a tough business outcomes orientated project that ensures a high value outcome.

This thread discusses the components of such a procurement approach.  The individual documents and processes that make up the approach are outlined.  Thereafter the components are discussed in more detail.  Articles to date include:

1: Introduction
2: Bill of Services, Laboratory, Go-live Certificate, etc
3: Executive Engagement, Bid Compliance, Adjudication and other matters


To inquire about ordering the above service simply click on the link, enter your details in the resulting email and send it to me.  If for some reason the email does not open please just hit reply to this email and enter your contact details.  I will revert to you in the manner you request to answer your questions and make arrangements.

Should you require further information please email me and I will be delighted to connect by email, phone or Skype to answer all your questions.

I look forward to being of service to you.

Yours faithfully,


Dr James Robertson  PrEng

Random Selection of Articles by Dr James Robertson

SNw 057 Business System Failure – HOW do you recognize it?

Many executives and managers do NOT know how to recognize business systems failure.  They have failed systems right at their finger tips, gauged by the standards advocated on this website, BUT they do NOT realize that they are at some level failures and, because they do NOT recognize failure they do NOT recognize either the need OR the opportunity to DO something about it
Cnf 061 Analysing The Two Most Critical Factors for I. T. Investment Success: Executive Custody and Strategic Solution Architecture

Executive Custody of large integrated business information system projects is one of the critical weaknesses, this presentation discusses some of the key considerations with regard to this and also discusses the importance of strategic alignment and strategic solution architecture in achieving high value solutions
Cnf 076 The Problem of IT Mythology and Mystique - Bringing IT Audit Down to Earth

The real issues in IT Audit, cutting through mythology and mystique to examine the factors that should really be examined in IT Audits, ranging from strategic alignment and governance through to effective IT staff alignment with the business through boots in the mud socialization
Cnf MVw Most Viewed Presentations

The following presentations are those that have been most viewed since posting on Slideshare giving some indication of where the focus of interest lies
Std 027 COBOL – old software CAN be retained (with reference to Bridgestone)

Many organizations replace COBOL systems because they have been told they are obsolete, this article dispels that myth

Dr James A Robertson PrEng

Business Systems NOT delivering?

Call the Business Systems Specialist

Dr. James Robinson

Dr James A Robertson -- has been involved in the effective application of Business Information Systems, including but NOT limited to ERP, since 1987 and in the profitable and effective use of computers in Business since 1981.

Drawing on a diversity of experience, including formal military training in Quick Attack techniques at the Regimental Commander level, Dr Robertson has developed highly effective methods of investigating any sub-optimal Business Information Systems situation -- be it an established system or a stalled project or any other source of Executive frustration -- quickly and concisely diagnosing the root cause of the problem and prescribing concise practical actions that Business Executives can effectively act on see the Pulse Measurement page and also the Sample Reports page for redacted real reports.

He has also developed highly effective methods of strategically enriching systems to unlock the full potential of existing investments, see the Precision Configuration page and couples this to architecting small pieces of clever software that harness the full potential of your investment, see the Software page.

If you are having problems with your systems, your project or your IT Department, call The Business Systems Specialist

Business System Failure is RIFE -- we offer insight into why this happens AND WHAT is required to prevent it.

Failure is at epidemic levels with massive damage done to client companies -- if you are NOT aware of the extent of the problem please visit the About Failure page for a catalog of major failures running to billions of Pounds and Dollars.

All evidence indicates that the established players do NOT know how to deliver stable, reliable high value solutions that WORK.

There HAS to be a better way!

This website provides information relating to that way with a large collection of white papers, presentations, standards documents, etc that you can use to start bringing the situation under control

We also offer high level advisory services with regard to the application of the principles advocated on this website

We offer an ENGINEERING APPROACH to addressing these issues

Click here to read more about the Engineering Approach

By Engineering I mean the formal, structured, highly disciplined, highly systematic, highly practical approach that consistently delivers results in ALL areas of human endeavor where formally trained and certified engineers are the ONLY practitioners permitted to operate -- think large buildings, factories, motor vehicles, aircraft -- highly complex systems that work at a level that we take it for granted that they WILL work and where failure is all but unthinkable and, when it happens, attracts immediate public attention and rigorous investigation directed at ensuring that such failures are prevented in the future -- in fact, everything that the management consulting industry that implements complex software systems is NOT

This approach is discussed further on the Engineering Approach page.

Search Articles

Book -- The Critical Factors for Information Technology Investment Success

In 2003 I undertook an in-depth analysis of all the information and experience that I had gathered with regard to the factors giving rise to Business Information System failure including ERP and general IT and classified this information into a number of categories including "The Factors Causing Failure" and "The Critical Factors for Success" based on this I developed a two day Course "The Critical Factors for Information Technology Investment Success" which is still offered today.

Based on this I wrote the book of the same name, which is available in electronic form here for download:

Random Selection of Articles by Dr James Robertson

Cnf 064 Engaging the Board in Strategic Information Technology Decisions

The Governance of Information Technology is fraught with difficulties and presents real challenges to the Board of Directors and particularly non-executive Directors to determine whether the organization is running this element prudently and effectively, this presentation discusses a number of factors to be taken into account in managing the technology
Cnf 085 Precision configuration -- Information Technologies' orphan child

The single biggest "hard" factor in the under performance of business information systems relates to what I call "sloppy configuration", this presentation outlines a concept that I call "precision configuration" and explains how it can make a huge difference to business information system value delivery
SNw 056 The Alternative to Business Process – the RIGHT Approach

Having established that business process is irrelevant, distracting in dangerous in designing and configuring business information systems, what do we put in its place?  This article discusses the progression of activities that an effective business systems specification, configuratoon, testing and deployment project should follow

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Articles by James A Robertson and Associates

There is a large body of white papers, articles and other content produced by Dr James Robertson available on this website

Please click here to visit the detailed listing of articles

ArticleTagCloud for Articles Published by James A Robertson and Associates

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System success      things right      third party suppliers      third world countries      thrive      time      tipping point      tough certificates      tough contract management      tough contracts      tough procurement      tough terms      training      training material      treatment code      understanding of data      understanding the engineering approach      Uniface      unlocking value      use different languages for new components      V3 Consulting Engineers      validation data      value      versus process      video      webinar      webinars      weighted factors      what is executive custody      what is strategy      what is the essence of this organization and how does it thrive      what to do      where is IT going      why executive custody is required      why the organization exists and how it thrives      why your business information system is NOT delivering and HOW to FIX it      why your ERP is NOT delivering and how to fix it      workflow      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Table of Contents


About Dr James A Robertson PrEng -- The Business Systems Doctor -- and Other Topics

Catalogue of Major Business Information System Failures

About the Engineering Approach

James Robertson's Value Add

Attributes of a HIGH VALUE solution

Recognizing Business System Failure

The Critical Human Foundation

Old Software IS Viable

From South Africa

Competencies of Dr James A Robertson PrEng

About Professor Malcolm McDonald

Table of Contents

About my relationship with the Almighty Creator, Yah the Eternally Self-Existing

Comments relating to the Business Systems Industry and other topics

Testimonials and other positive material regarding James Robertson

Reference Articles

List of Articles

Article Catalogue

Achieving High Value Business Information System outcomes

Executive Custody -- What is it and HOW do you get it?

The REAL Issues in Integrated Business Information System Success

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2 -- Mythology and Lack of Executive Custody

Part 3 – Strategic Alignment and Precision Configuration

Why your ERP is NOT delivering and HOW to FIX it

IT Project Management

Pulse Measurement

CEO Anthony Lee Comments on his experience of the Pulse Measurement

No Charge Guarantee on the Pulse Measurement Service

Examples of Pulse Measurement Outcomes

Critical questions regarding the Pulse Measurement™

The Pulse Measurement Workflow

The Critical Factors for Business System (ERP+) Investment Success in the Pulse Measurement

Indicative Pulse Measurement Durations

What is a JAR&A Pulse Measurement?

Survival of the fittest – why it makes sense to measure the pulse of your business

Examples of Pulse Measurement Outcomes over 24 years

Sample Pulse Measurement Reports


Strategic Essence: The Missing Link in Business Information Systems

Strategic Essence: Overview

Strategic Essence: Part 1 -- Strategy Defined

Strategic Essence: Part 2 -- Differentiation

Strategic Essence: Part 3 -- The Essence IS Different

Strategic Essence: Part 4 -- The Essence should be the Point of Departure

Strategic Essence: Part 5 -- Discovering Strategic Essence

Strategy -- the Essence of the Business: What is it and how do you develop actionable strategic plans?

Simple Steps to Increase the Strategic Value of your ERP Investment

Free Strategic Snapshot Toolset and Manual

A strategy focused planning system beyond traditional budgeting

Tough IT and ERP Procurement and Contracting that Works

Robust Business Systems Procurement

Part 1 -- Introduction

Part 2 -- Bill of Services, Laboratory, Go-live Certificate, etc

Part 3 -- Executive Engagement, Bid Compliance, Adjudication and other matters

Procurement Documents

Guidance and Advisory Services

The Art of Project Leadership

Why Regular Communication with the CEO is Vital

The Business Simulation Laboratory

Precision Configuration and Strategic Business Information Architecture

Precision Configuration based on Strategic Engineered Precision Taxonomies

The JAR&A Cubic Business Model

Highly Structured Strategic Chart of Accounts -- a Vital Element of your Corporate Information Arsenal

The Product Catalogue -- an Essential Element of any Precision Configuration

Attributes -- answers to the questions you have NOT yet thought to ask

Case Studies of Notably Successful Projects with high value Precision Configuration

092 Doing things differently and better -- ASCO Case Study 2-- BPM Summit 2013

088 Strategic ERP Invesment -- ASCO Case Study -- Service Management Conference and Exhibition Africa

026 Information Architecture and Design of FIS for Rennies Group -- Financial Information Systems Conf

018 CRM Risk Control: Designing and Implementing an Integrated Risk Mgmt Sys -- Integrated Risk Mgmt Conf

011 V3 Consulting Eng: Benefits of MIS to Professional Practice -- SAICE 15th Ann Conf on Computers in Civil Eng

Strategically Enriching your Business Information Systems

Part 1 -- Introduction

Part 2 -- Principles of Data Engineering

Part 3 -- Steps in applying these recommendations

Simple Steps to increase the strategic information value yield from your Business Systems Investment

The Full JAR&A Taxonomy Manual

Part 1: Introduction, Problem Statement, Definitions and Examples

Part 2: Why Use JAR&A, Required Knowledge and Experience, Cubic Business Model and Chart of Accounts and Taxonomy Software

Part 3: How to do it, Case Studies and White Papers and other References

Example General Ledger Manual

Business Process -- Irrelevant, Distracting and Dangerous

The RIGHT Approach

Custom Strategic Software Design and Oversight of Construction

Standards for Custom Software Specification

What IS Software?

IT Effectiveness

Organizing Outlook

Critical Factors for I.T. Success

A Moral and Ethical Dilemma -- Systems that Fail

Case Studies examining Business Information System failures

The BBC Digital Media Initiative Debacle

The Bridgestone -- IBM Conflict

Speaking and Training

Showcase of Conference Presentations

Most Viewed Presentations

Briefings and Seminars

Why your ERP/BIS is NOT delivering and HOW to FIX it

ERP and IT Procurement that Delivers Results

The Critical Factors for IT and ERP Investment Success

Other Seminars

Conferences and Public Presentations

Conferences 80 to 99 -- 2009 to Present

Conferences 60 to 79 -- 2005 to 2009

Conferences 40 to 59 -- 1996 to 2005

Conferences 20 to 39 -- 1994 to 1996

Conferences 01 to 19 -- 1989 to 1994

On-Line Seminars (Webinars)

Webinar on Preparing and Presenting Webinars

Contacting James A Robertson and Associates Limited