It Takes Two to Tango…
In 2003, when IT professionals were still celebrating triumphs of the previous decade (Y2K disaster avoidance, ERP implementations, pre-bust Dotcom wizardry), Nicholas Carr published a controversial article in the Harvard Business Review with the provocative title “IT Doesn’t Matter” in which he argued IT had become a commodity and that companies should think twice before investing in IT as a differentiator. IT workers were indignant, maintaining that someone who had never written code, stood up a server, or manned a service desk, had no business opining about IT. They objected to him treating IT like pork bellies.
Many of us, however, knew that Carr was on to something: We had watched and heard of companies spending fortunes on IT products, with little or nothing to show for it. Many were still suffering from botched (and expensive) IT upgrades. Whose fault that was is still open for debate. There was a conundrum: IT was recognized as a business necessity, yet viewed as a cost pit gulping pricey ware that quickly becomes obsolete; businesses were vexed that their enormous technology spending had not delivered the silver bullet that leapfrogged them ahead of their competitors; and the techies were just not getting what the business wanted.
Carr struck a chord with frustrated top executives now looking to tame IT. In a prior era, IT (EDP or MIS, as it was called then) was largely a back-office facility confined to specific uses, and a black box the intricacies of which were known only to its operators. The Internet, Client-Server, and the Y2K-fueled ERP wave that took place in the Nineties, their associated high costs and impact on the enterprise, made IT emerge from the shadows. Sins that were previously buried quietly in the family plot now received scrutiny from senior managers who were keen to know what’s in the black box and how to make IT hum with the rest of the orchestra.
The ability to “align IT with the business” became the most desirable trait sought in CIO candidates. Many IT leaders (including yours truly) listed “IT alignment” as a key competence on their resumes as if it were the elixir of all alignment disorders. Countless books and articles have been written about the subject, and consulting careers flourished to help companies address the elusive alignment. In IT circles and industry conferences, the subject is always on the agenda, and IT leaders delight in recounting how they led their companies to alignment nirvana.
Yet, the problem persists. Even in this day and age of ubiquitous technology when virtually everything we touch is IT, “the business/technology chasm” is still a problem.
This is no surprise. For one, the term has been applied generically to a variety of conditions: misalignment between corporate and regional (or divisional) IT; conflicts between IT and go-it-alone departments (exacerbated by the Cloud, where departments prefer to bypass corporate IT in favor of their solutions); disagreement over who owns the technology roadmap (autonomy); personality conflicts and ego clashes; etc. None of these situations is necessarily unique to the IT department, and each is a product of elements particular to the organization and the people involved.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Two types of organizations seldom gripe about IT-Business alignment: (Typically) small companies where IT is a utility to maintain essentials (email, networks, lights on), with competent enough IT staff to do the job; and enlightened companies that have long incorporated IT into everything they do and consistently stride ahead. For the struggling rest, a few — or all — of the following factors might be present:
Pin the tail on the donkey: It happens more than you think: In a time when technology and digital have become central to every aspect of business, CIOs are still left out of the business strategy discussion and, at best, merely informed of it. This leaves the CIO trying to accurately divine the business intentions and IT catching up with initiatives already in motion.
Miscasting: CIOs with profiles that made them wildly successful in one company can struggle in another, because of management culture, support, and control mechanisms. Also, some companies set out to hire “innovative” and “strategic” CIOs when in reality they simply want a supreme help-desk technician.
Tech babble: Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of dealing with IT, when conversations about business solutions are shrouded with technical jargon that sounds to the listener like obfuscation and turf protection.
Scapegoating: Many technology projects are flawed from the start, and when they run into trouble, IT is most likely to be blamed when in reality the entire organization may be culpable.
Free-for-all: Lack of processes to plan and prioritize IT projects and resources, and assign responsibility for outcomes, leads to chaos and results in disappointment all around.
Budgeting: Companies often allocate a bucket to the IT department to serve the entire business, instead of earmarking budgets for specific business projects and needs. This causes department heads to vie for IT resources and, in the absence of any governance, pits the CIO against her peers should she prioritize one project over another.
Outdated delivery methods: Many IT departments still adhere to old project and development methods that simply do not deliver fast enough while keeping their business counterparts largely in the dark until the (often disappointing) unveiling.
Can’t We All Get Along?
Let’s be blunt: Misalignment is a euphemism for dysfunction. Repairing dysfunction is not the concern of one department or leader, but an organizational undertaking. CIOs can do a lot to influence the conduct of their departments, but can be effective only in a broader organizational context.
Alignment happens when two (or more) people have the same vision of what must happen one, two, or six months downstream and row together to the destination.
The first dose of the remedy is to stop talking about Business and IT as if the latter is a wagon to be hitched to the train, rather than an integral part of the machine. The conversation may happen, but I don’t recall ever hearing about aligning Finance, Operations, HR, Sales — or any part of the value chain — with “the business”. So, why is IT still the object of alignment when it has become indispensable to every enterprise and inextricably connected to successful business outcomes?
IT has probably undergone more drastic changes in the last decade or two than any of its peer business functions. Activities and roles that were once embedded in IT have now moved into the business and, often, IT professionals have moved into operational roles outside of IT. This cross-pollination can help to get everyone to row in the same direction — if leveraged correctly.
IT workers must recognize that their business peers constantly interact with technology (i.e., smart devices, IoT), and now expect the speed and convenience of a downloaded phone app from corporate IT, and see in Cloud-based solutions attractive alternatives to it. Their business colleagues must educate themselves on the complexities of enterprise IT, the importance of integration and data management in the age of big data and Machine Learning, and the business and security risks involved in implementing enterprise-grade solutions.
Cultivating this mutual understanding within a culture that fosters trust and cooperation is hard work, but it paves the way to healthy dynamics and eventual alignment of purpose
Author: Bassam Fawaz