More and more companies are transforming via digital transformation and discovering new lines of business or radically changing their existing business models through the use of technology. What does this mean? It means that IT and the business have no choice but to become aligned if they want to succeed.
It’s no longer just “nice to have” alignment between business and IT. If the IT organization isn’t aligned with the business, the business will go around IT to make their initiatives happen — and that can have catastrophic consequences for everyone.
It’s one thing to have a meeting with both the business and IT in the room and claim that you’re aligned. But the realities of what alignment looks like and what it really means for IT and the business is more complex than simply adding IT to meeting agendas.
What does it mean for the business and IT to be aligned? Who’s responsible for creating that alignment?
From Service Provider to Solution Provider
According to Tim Winders, Vice-Chancellor of Information Services at Purdue University Northwest, “IT is aligned with the business when IT moves from being a service organization to delivering business solutions.”
The subtle difference between providing business solutions and being a service provider requires a proactive approach. As Tim explains it, “In the reactive model, IT fixes problems but is outside of the decision-making process.” Being proactive as an IT organization means being “a collaborative business partner delivering solutions that solve specific business problems. IT collaborates with the business to identify business problems to provide proactive solutions, improving products, customer experience, and business reputation.”
The days of IT just implementing the right technology are long gone. IT has to be an engaged part of every business strategy discussion because technology touches every piece of the business. IT must be engaged from the beginning if that technology is to work to enable value to the business and its end users.
Mike Gill, CIO at Marian, Inc, explains it this way, “You need to ensure your solution delivery provides value. The value is not if you have the best technology or it runs the most efficiently, the value is if it solves a problem the business has.”
Of course, it’s easy to say that the IT organization is driving value and is aligned with the business. But what does ‘alignment’ actually look like? How do you know if you’re aligned?
What Does Business-IT Alignment Look Like?
If business-IT alignment is connected to driving business value, then you have to start there. Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, the problem with “value” is that it’s a perception. What’s valuable to IT might not be valuable to the business – and vice-versa. So it’s important that value is identified and agreed by every stakeholder in the organization — customers, partners, suppliers and internal stakeholders. Defining and agreeing on the definition of value as an organization is the first step to getting IT and the business aligned.
Once value is defined, you can refine your workflows and processes to ensure they are actually delivering business value, including the appropriate measures within those workflows to check for value. For example, Mike shared a way that he can determine if IT is aligned with the business.
“We have an internally developed ERP system and have the freedom to implement workflows that provide maximum business value – it is a custom system tailored to our company. One sign that we are aligned is looking at transactions in the system,” explained Mike. “Are users doing all the steps in real-time or are they catching up transactions at the end of the day? Looking at the logs you can see if a process that should occur over a longer period (days, not minutes) is mirrored by a similar timeline of transactions in the system. If I see those transactions happening by different people over the course of a day or two then I know the system is aligned to the business (both function and usability). If I see all those transactions happen within minutes of each other then I know they are just catching up work into the system because they must – [which indicates that IT is] not aligned.”
The key here is that Mike made sure the technology fit and supported the workflows of the business, instead of the other way around – a key to business-IT alignment. This enables the technology to be instrumented or monitored to confirm business value – and therefore, better aligned with the organization.
Additionally, to ensure you’re aligned, look to see if IT is being invited to new projects and initiatives at the kickoff meeting. According to Mike, “It is easy to invite IT leadership to monthly and annual executive status meetings and feel like you are giving them importance or that you are aligning business and IT. That does matter, but it matters more when the regular business projects and initiatives are inviting IT representation in the first steps. It means the business and IT are given the chance to stay aligned from the beginning rather than create the feeling that IT just does what the business says – that never leads to good outcomes.”
IT leaders must regularly check in with other company leaders to ensure that IT is involved with all upcoming initiatives. If you do that, you’re on your way to business-IT alignment.
What To Do About Business-IT Alignment?
Once some signs of business-IT alignment begin to appear within an organization, you have to ask yourself one thing: “What am I going to do with this opportunity?”
I believe that IT organizations struggling with business-IT alignment fall into one of two camps. The first group doesn’t know how to achieve business-IT alignment. For that organization, they need to collaborate across the organization to define and agree on value, co-create workflows and solutions to achieve that value, and work together to monitor and continually optimize those solutions.
The other camp consists of organizations that believe that they have business-IT alignment – but they don’t. This is a much larger number of companies than the number of organizations that just can’t figure out alignment. For these companies, the IT organization is in danger of losing its influence in the company – if it has any influence at all.
Business-IT alignment can often become performative in organizations. It’s easy to have meetings, to gain an agreement on a definition of value, and to create workflows that should enable the realization of value. It’s another thing to ensure that everyone in the organization – both from the business and from IT- is following through and living that definition of value.
The important thing every IT leader must do is identify what happens after the big discussions, after the kickoff meetings, and understand what is really going on in the day-to-day running of the organization. Is your team clear on the value it delivers and how it delivers it? Are you enabling your team to work across departments and proactively identify and promote the value you’re delivering? Are you enabling the rest of the organization to have input in how IT is operating and to provide feedback and suggestions for what needs to be done from a business perspective?
Business-IT alignment isn’t a 50-50 split. To achieve and maintain alignment, both IT and the business have to give 100 percent to make alignment work. But before they can both commit 100%, one team has to be the one to step up and put all the effort in first. I believe that team is the IT organization. IT has to start giving 100% toward business-IT alignment, even before the business commits to alignment. It’s work to get into alignment and the onus will fall on IT, especially in the beginning – but it’s work that pays off..
And remember, business-IT alignment isn’t a one-and-done activity. It’s a continual process that has to be monitored, mapped and measured on a regular basis.
My challenge to you is to share: how are you staying aligned in your organization? What are your methods for checking and measuring business-IT alignment? Where are the gaps in business-IT alignment that you need to fill?Share