Quite a few years ago, I briefly joined a subcommittee of a national telecommunications managers association. The subcommittee’s issue: Telecommunications as a Strategic Resource. (“Telecommunications, in this context, means voice communications technology.)

The first twenty minutes of the meeting consisted of a bunch of telecom managers explaining how important telecommunications is to the organization, and on techniques for communicating this fact to senior management. The short version: if a company loses dial-tone it has a big problem, so telecommunications is strategic.

Because I doze off in meetings if I don’t occasionally speak, I offered a suggestion: “If we want to be viewed as a strategic resource, maybe our first step should be making sure we are a strategic resource.”

As I said, I joined only briefly. They never told me the time and place of the next meeting.

As a character in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s science fiction novels used to say, “We can’t all play first-chair violin. Some of us have to push air through the tubas.” Not everything we do is strategic. Sometimes we have to settle for importance.

IS has three distinct, important roles to play. Borrowing from military and game theory, we can call them Strategic, Tactical, and Logistic contributions to company success.

Logistics is the art of making sure the troops have everything they need to win. It includes getting them to the battlefield on time, making sure they have food and ammunition … all those little details that matter so much when two armies are trying to kill each other.

Translated to the business world, logistics includes everything that supplies employees with the basics they need to do their jobs – telephone service, voice and electronic mail, perhaps a word processor and spreadsheet. Stuff like that. Logistic services don’t add value so much as their absence subtracts value. They’re like plumbing – it’s not strategic, but if the pipes break you have a big mess on your hands.

Tactics covers the detailed maneuvers that have to be orchestrated to win a particular battle. Napoleon, for example, was a master tactician, noted for his ability to pin an opposing force in place through a feint to the front while having his cavalry attack from a different, unexpected direction, confusing his enemy and ultimately destroying it.

In business, tactics includes all core processes and the applications that support them. Do you have an order-entry call center? Improving how you run it gives you a tactical advantage. Do you use a workflow/imaging/document management system? If so, you’re probably using it to tactical advantage. In fact, everything you do to improve the business you’re in today has to do with either logistics or tactics. IS expends most of its time and attention in pursuit of its logistic and tactical roles in the organization. As it should. You have to survive until the future gets here, after all.

How about strategy? That deals with larger-scale objectives. Is your company market, product, or competency driven? That’s a strategic decision. Does it try to define market dynamics, or does it look for unexploited market niches? Does it compete on price or does it try to support high margins through exceptional service? Does it innovate, or perfect and integrate the innovations of others? All of these are strategic issues, as are decisions regarding what new product categories, markets, or competencies will be needed to thrive in the future.

IS has a vital role in helping companies achieve strategic goals. You take the first step, of course, when you understand the difference between IS’s strategic role and its logistic and tactical roles. You take the second when you take the time to understand and internalize the company’s strategy.

That’s when you’re ready to engage in a dialog with your company’s leadership to mutually decide what new technologies, technical capabilities, applications and infrastructure the company will need to achieve its strategic goals.

If it didn’t happen this way, it should have: On the great golfer Ben Hogan’s 70th birthday, I’m told, an interviewer asked if he had plans to retire. “Retire?” Hogan is supposed to have responded. “People retire to fish and play golf. I fish and play golf now!”

Management consultants have an unfortunate penchant for sports metaphors. So, it occurred to me the other day as I searched for my ball that IS management and golf have a lot in common. To those of you who play the game I need go no further. For the rest, I’ll explain some of the parallels:

1. When your golf swing goes off, you try solutions more or less at random to fix it. When a computer program that used to work crashes, programmers often do the same.

2. Sometimes, the tools we use in computing just don’t work the way they’re supposed to. The same can be said of golf clubs.

3. In golf, even when you can reach the green in one shot it usually takes two putts to get the ball in the hole. With computers, even when you have a relatively easy problem to solve you usually need two iterations after delivering the product before you satisfy the user.

4. With computers, no matter what new snazzy tool you buy someone announces a better one right after you spend your money. That’s true of golf clubs too.

5. In golf there’s par, but most of us are pretty happy getting a bogey. With computers there’s the project plan, but we often feel pretty good if we only need one extension to finish the project. (By the way, for those of you on Year 2000 projects – you won’t get an extension. Sorry.)

6. In IS we often work in politically charged environments. Keeping your head down can be important. In golf you want to keep your head down, too.

7. Many greenskeepers resent those pesky golfers who mess up their beautiful golf courses. Many network managers resent those pesky end-users who clog up their pretty networks with unwanted packets.

8. On a related note, too many users on the network slows down response time. Too many golfers on the course slows down play.

9. Golfers remember the sport as being fun, but when we’re playing, at least in Minnesota, we spend half our time swatting bugs. Likewise in IS, getting rid of bugs gets in the way of the fun.

10. Most people outside of IS don’t understand why we find our profession so fascinating, and have no idea why it’s so hard. Non-golfers have no clue why golfers hit a small white ball around a field with sticks, let alone why the ball usually curves out of the fairway.

11. In golf you can hit a great-looking shot that lands nowhere near the hole. You can also hit a nasty-looking shot off the heel of your club that scoots across the grass, bounces off a squirrel, and finishes two feet from the cup. With computers, you can write elegant code that somehow fails to satisfy the users or succeed in the marketplace … and on the other side of the equation, there’s Windows.

12. Most people can become competent programmers. With time, training and hard work we can create solid programs that work well. In the next cube, though, there’s someone who speaks C++ as if it were his native language, writing code as beautiful as poetry that always works perfectly on the first compile. In golf, most of us can get the ball in the air and “out there” after a bunch of lessons and several years of practice, but we all know someone who shot par when he was twelve years old.

And, both pursuits have the same favorite phrase: “Oh %$#^!”