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How Do We Align The Business With IT?

Office Space MugIs there a chance that the conventional wisdom we all face, which says that the challenge is to align IT with business, is backwards?  Perhaps the really important challenge is to align the business with IT.

I started to think that maybe the conventional wisdom was backwards a couple of months ago after I moderated a two-hour discussion that was attended by about a dozen senior IT mangers who came from a broad range of organizations.  The goal of the discussion was to discuss how changes in business, culture and technology are impacting the role of networking in general and the role of the network organization in particular.

Part way into the conversation, a couple of the attendees expressed anxiety about the ability of their organization to meet the expectations of their company’s newest employees — the ones who have grown up using technology.  Since this is a frequently-discussed topic, I have to admit that my mind was somewhat on cruise control when they talked about their concern about the ability of their organization to provide services to these employees fast enough to meet their ever-growing expectations.  I snapped back into paying better attention when they moved a bit off of that topic and began to discuss concerns about their ability to coax the business managers they support into changing their traditional processes — changes which could leverage all of the technologies that are now readily available and used by younger employees.  As one of the attendees put it, “Our company has a lot of business managers who have a paper mindset and are resistant to change.”

A couple of weeks after I ran that discussion group, I came across a Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog entry entitled, “IT Cannot Be Only the CIO’s Responsibility.”  The blog started with a quote that brought a smile to my face, from a CEO: “I just want to forget about IT and focus on my core business.”  I smiled in part because it reminded me of a conversation that I’d had somewhat recently with an IT organization.  During that conversation I asked how their IT budget process worked.  The answer I got was that the attitude of most of the company’s business managers was, “Just give IT a 3% increase and make them go away.”

One of the reasons I like the HBR blog post is that while the authors state that it is ok to hold a CIO responsible for implementing technology that works and doing it on time and on budget, they also raise an interesting question: “Who should be held to account for the benefits and value from the IT spend?”  To exemplify their point, the authors use the example of a CIO who has implemented a CRM solution on time and on budget.  The authors point out that the solution will provide little value if the key components of the business don’t closely align around the solution.  As they said in the blog, the solution will have little value “….unless sales, customer services, and fulfillment processes are redesigned, staff trained to have the right conversations with customers, data quality improves, and marketers build the right competencies to use all the data that will now be available to them.”

Ok, this is not a simple either/or type discussion.  Yes, we must continually work to make sure that the IT function is closely aligned with the rest of the business.  However, that topic gets a lot of attention.  A related topic that we need to talk more about is how to make sure that the business is aligned with IT.

Image credit: Stephen Cummings (flickr) – CC-BY-2.0