Thursday, June 9, 2011

Business and IT Alignment

By: Frank Buytendijk, chief marketing officer

I recently received a promotional email for a "masterclass" on business and IT alignment. The training promised answers on the following questions: "how do you know your IT strategy is aligned with your business strategy?", "how can you put together a governance model that ensures IT follows the business?" and "Pitfalls and success factors".

I checked, the email wasn't from 1983, but seriously from 2009. How can we still have that discussion? Has nothing improved in the last 20 years? And moreover, how can business/IT alignment be so misconceived?

First of all, let's define alignment, this is usually skipped already. From a social-psychological view, a person is aligned when the self, self-perception and external perception closely match. The self-perception is how you look at yourself, and the self is who you really are. If there is a mismatch you could become delusional, frustrated, and generally uncontrolled. You don't understand yourself. If there is a big gap between the self and self-perception, and the external perception, people expect you to be someone that you are really not. This leads to role distance, and unauthentic behavior too. The same can be said of organizations. If there is a big gap between true organizational behavior and who we think we are, we are kidding ourselves. Did you check out your mission statement and values lately? And if there is a big gap between external perception and the organization's true motives, you spend more time figuring out how to spin your strategy externally than actually executing on it. Quite dysfunctional.

Same with business/IT alignment. Like any relationship, it needs to come from both sides. Business perception about value needs to match the IT perspective. But... functional relationships should be based on equality. If both parties agree that IT should follow the business, you're in a dependent, submissive relationship. Not mature.

Business needs to align to IT, as much as IT needs to align with the business. It's a two way street. The nature of technology dictates so, for starters. If you are a carpenter, and you buy one of those circular saw tables (new technology), you'd better organize your process and work around that table, instead of lifting the table to go to the wood. If IT were to follow the business, deleting text on a screen would have to be done with Tipp-ex. The whole point of technology is to not align with the business, but to bring innovation. New, different, better ways of working. If anything, business should align to technology in order to be more successful. In fact, secretly we do so already. It has become a best practice to adapt the business to the processes built into the ERP system and CRM application, and rightly so.

Then, let's discuss Business/Business alignment. How many times is IT struggling with suboptimal business cases, based on budget held by the business, by having to put in a departmental solutions, because each department is "unique"? IT is often found to be "nerdy" and having "no sense of urgency" for talking about architecture and infrastructure. True, IT driven projects are usually not very successful (the business will see to that), but the only thing worse is a business driven project. Short-term successful, but ill-architected, nothing repeatable, and lots of them combined form one big negative ROI in two years down the road. It is the role of IT to see commonality between functional requirements, and take an integrated approach. It would be a lot easier if the business departments would align with, well, the other business departments, instead of IT having that struggle all the time themselves.

And, while I am on the subject, it's a pity if organizations are still discussing business/IT alignment. The real battlefront has moved on already. The name of the game is value chain integration. Aligning all stakeholders around a successful and sustainable business model. Making sure partners, suppliers and channels all benefit from integrated logistical and administrative flows, while taking into account the requirements of investors, regulators, and society at large. This is how alignment contributes to the business strategy.

But perhaps we should start with something else. Remember the definition of alignment. The self, self-perception and external perception need to closely match. Perhaps the real problem is the gap between self and self-perception. IT people sometimes think too little of themselves, and desperately want to be seen as a 'business partner' and considered of strategic importance. Don't worry. You are. Because of the nature of technology. And IT people sometimes think too much of themselves, claiming they understand the business better than the marketing, operations or sales executives. Don't kid yourself. When was the last time you talked to a customer, and constructed a multi-year deal? Think of yourself as who you really are: at the core of business innovation, while at the same time making sure the business runs smoothly.

Thanks for listening. Rant over.