IT and business alignment – a phrase used in places from the boardroom to the water cooler and everywhere in between. The basic meaning is generally well understood; to ensure that IT and business goals are the same. The importance of this is obvious but because technology today is omnipresent and often provides companies their competitive advantage the need to always maximize your technology investment has taken on a new level of relevance. The Society for Information Management’s 2015 Annual IT Trends Study found that the #1 IT management issue/concern was “alignment of IT with the business”. Even though IT spend is on an upward trend most CIOs are increasingly challenged to deliver what is asked of them. Old expectations and behaviors don’t cut it anymore; laser focus on business outcomes and ability to act in synch with the overall business is a must. In addition, the overall role of IT is changing. Technology decisions and purchases are increasingly made by non-IT groups forcing IT to shift emphasis from controlling to consulting and to be effective must now find new ways to remain relevant. Being out-of-touch or not being viewed as a strategic player will render your IT department irrelevant very quickly.
So, how do you make the transition? How do you align? Sounds pretty straight forward but as many of you can attest, it’s a tough thing to achieve. No doubt there is a long line of contributing factors why companies are not, such as accumulating technical debt or poor communication between IT and business units. Sure, alignment is a question of organizational discipline but more importantly it’s a question of culture. It will not happen by process alone; an energizing and supporting environment in which process and people can thrive is a necessity.
Having seen many companies attempt this a few common attributes are surfacing among the ones that are successful. If you are already working to hone your alignment or if this is in your future consider the following.
Have a plan. OK, so that sounds a little obvious but this tends to be one of the biggest and most common obstacles. Don’t get me wrong, most companies do have plans but they are often not created in a way that allows for effective alignment. Plans must be firmly founded in an organizational vision that has executive sponsorship, there needs to be discipline in how plans are created and used, and they need to be communicated frequently and at all levels. Without this in place the plans that are created actually tend to counteract the very purpose for which they were originally created. They set in motions actions that pull in different directions and create waste. Main point, planning that does not happen in a coordinated fashion and in a transparent environment can disrupt instead of enable.
It’s a team sport. Alignment is the result of open and honest conversations among peers. It does not happen as a result of executive meetings and decisions or because a task force was created. It does not happen if only parts of the company are involved or if certain groups are seen as providing less value; alignment is a team sport and everyone on the team has a role to play. Any walls between IT (or any other department) and the rest of the business need to be removed, the “business” is the total of all its parts not just some. Success happens when on a level playing field people at all levels in the company talk, share ideas, and set goals that unite under a shared vision.
Keep it flexible. Expect and allow for changes. Unknown information and forces beyond your control can and will change your needs and the world around you so it’s critical that you allow for this. Having successful alignment does not mean you are in lock-step at every point in time; it means you have a mechanism to continually do so over time. For illustration, in a well aligned organization business needs and technology capabilities flow together, but even in this case rarely do they perfectly intersect.
Business First, Everything Else Second. Don’t misunderstand this as IT does not have a say, nothing can be further from the truth. All areas of the organization must have a say and equal responsibility to participate but business outcomes is what matters. Decisions must be made based on primary business outcomes and not secondary motives.
Give Me a Map. If you boil down alignment to its essence it’s about uncovering the most efficient and appropriate changes to support your business; predictably identifying the best way to get from point A to B. In order to do this you must know where you are and what your surroundings look like. Creating a business map will help you do this. There are a few options but the most efficient way is a Capability Mapping which decomposes your business into what it does and clearly describes each capability and how it relates to your organization, your resources, your clients, and your procedures.
Keep It Simple. Many endeavors both in our private lives and in business never make it past the idea stage. Why? They end up too big or complex and we end up feeling overwhelmed. It’s fun to dream big but if it’s not manageable we fail in execution. This is true for organizations as well so start small and keep it simple. Develop the approach, get teams used to working together in a new way, and establish new expectations. As you realize wins use those to gain credibility and support.
The Value of Enterprise Architecture. The complexity of organizations and the speed at which they need to adapt to altering conditions has dramatically changed. Careful orchestration of resources, process, and technology to meet certain outcomes is becoming increasingly important. Enter the role of Enterprise Architect (EA). The EA has been around for a few decades but has during that time evolved from primarily a technology role to a key business role. The value it provides is a person or team dedicated to the overall alignment of process, technology, and outcome. In terms of business and IT alignment the EA becomes the conductor, directing the actions across the enterprise to meet the stated goals. If you haven’t already, establish Enterprise Architecture in your organization!
Finally, Let It Soak! Clearly, accomplishing alignment is not easy and it requires patience so start the process and let it soak. Time is important but it’s imperative that it permeate the organization. This is not an executive level responsibility or the duty of a few special teams. Nor is it an event or even a series of events. To succeed, all levels and all groups must be included on a continual basis. Evaluation of decisions against the stated goals and plans must become habit. Alignment is a daily deliberate activity happening across the enterprise.
Most companies don’t get this right the first time and it requires work and commitment. Don’t give up, ask for help, and expect some trial and error. It is well worth the effort. Give us a call if you want a guide or advice as you walk this path.