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Sam Lowe's blog on Enterprise IT

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Business-IT Alignment: Synchronisation or Aspiration?

Reading Richard Veryard's assertion that IT should be decoupled from the business rather than aligned to it reminded me of a conversation I had recently with an freelance IT Excellence consultant on the topic of business-IT alignment.

He also, like Richard, was of the opinion that the concept of business-IT alignment was unhelpful because it implied synchronisation of IT into the business cycles, which constrained the value IT could bring to the business. Of course he was right about that being negative, and I agree with Richard's arguments about the downsides of that model. Indeed, if you were to make IT a slave to the business cycles, plodding along behind not looking around at the effects of what it was doing, not looking ahead at what it could be doing, then it would only be able to be reactive and tactical. Only thinking about how to turnaround the next request that came its way, unable to innovate, or even think strategically. This is not a good state of affairs, and is actually a bit too close for comfort for some of us to negative characteristics we see today in many organisations. These are the exact constituency for whom improving business-IT alignment was supposed to be an improvement. Have we been aspiring for something that would actually make things worse?

Well, I'm not sure that we have. And the main reason why is that I never use the term 'business-IT alignment' to imply synchronisation. I can see why alignment could be interpreted as implying synchronisation, but that isn't something to be aspired to. On the other hand, improving alignment in objectives, in priorities and language, even in intentions and mindset really are aspirations with real benefit.

And just as important, if not more, is the perception of alignment. That is to say that the lines of business believe that IT are aligned to their businesses and the priorities of the business as a whole, rather than being aligned to their own agendas, their own technology projects, and their technology suppliers. In many organisations, it's only when the lines of business perceive they can get business-focused IT expertise (innovative and/or pragmatic as required) from IT, does IT get invited to the top table.

As I have blogged about before, I do like to look at IT departments as independent IT services businesses. Any independent IT services business needs to operate and innovate asynchronously from the engagements of sales-cycles it has with its customers, but the successful one innovates only in terms of objectives or opportunities its customers have, it thinks in terms of how it can use its own resources to provide value to its clients' businesses, it needs to describe what its value-add is to the businesses of its customers, and it focuses its delivery on success of the overall business change rather than just fulfilling on the technical completion of the task it is in charge of.

We spend too much time in IT discussing semantics (and alignment may indeed not be the right word), so I don't want to reduce the discussion to one of 'which is the _correct_ meaning of the phrase', but there are some big concepts hidden within this that seem worth debating, and that go way beyond a phrase.

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  • Thanks for the clarification Sam. I certainly agree about the need to coordinate various aspects of business and IT. Your list of coordinands would include goals, objectives, priorities, language and mindset. I am happy to discuss the nature and governance of this coordination. I just don't like the word "alignment", which I think carries too many misleading and perhaps outdated connotations.

    By Blogger Richard Veryard, at 9:46 am  

  • Ooh go on, let's talk about semantics! One dictionary offers the following thoughts on the verb "align":

    #1 To arrange in a line or so as to be parallel: align the tops of a row of pictures; aligned the car with the curb.
    #2 To adjust (parts of a mechanism, for example) to produce a proper relationship or orientation: aligning the wheels of a truck.
    #3 To ally (oneself, for example) with one side of an argument or cause.

    Personally I think all three of these capture the spirit of what I mean when I talk about "IT-business alignment" (maybe particularly #2 and #3).

    By Blogger Neil Ward-Dutton, at 10:09 pm  

  • Alignment is about 2 elements trying to adjust to each other. 'Synchronisation of IT into the business cycles' isn't alignment, but IT adjusting fully to the business.

    By Anonymous Bert, at 11:22 pm  

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