6 Reasons That IT / Business Alignment May Be Impossible To Do

by drjim on January 13, 2010

You Can't Align If You Can't Communicate

You Can

A quick quiz for you: what has been the #1 task on every CIO’s to-do list for the better part of the past 20 years? If you guessed “aligning IT with the rest of the business” then you are correct. This has been an IT goal for the past 20 years? What’s up with that? When you become CIO what are you going to do to solve this problem. Can it even be solved?

It’s All About Communication

Why has something that sounds so simple when we talk about it been so hard for CIOs to do? Tony Kontzer over at CIO Insight has taken a look at what’s been holding CIOs back and he’s come up with one answer: communication.

I’m pretty sure that we all know where this one is going. The non-IT business folks like to spend their time talking in business terms and we over on the IT side of the house seem to be only able to communicate using IT jargon. The results of this inability to communicate can be disastrous.

The Tower Of Babel — IT Style

When the business side of the house and the IT side of the house find it hard to communicate, what happens is that they simply stop communicating. When this happens, each side goes off and starts to do its own thing.

I can’t tell you how many firms that I’ve worked for where I’ve seen this happen. When communication breaks down between IT and the rest of the business is when you start to see the multiplying factor start to show up: multiple email systems, multiple ERP applications, etc.

From a CIO perspective, this is the worst thing in the world that can happen. The reason is that every IT system that gets added to the company means that there is one more system that needs to supported forever and that boosts the cost of having the IT department do work that does nothing to help the company’s bottom line.

The Big 6

When you become CIO, how will you be able to measure how well the IT department and the rest of the company are doing in trying to align themselves? Well, you’ll have to fall back on what everyone in IT loves the most: metrics. The trick is knowing what needs to be measured. Here are the top six alignment metrics as recommended by the Society for Information Management (SIM):

  1. Communication Channels: Have effective communications channels been established between the IT department and the other departments in the firm? Are these channels being used?
  2. Metrics: are metrics in place and are they being measured in order to determine where the firm stands in it’s efforts to align how the business processes operate and what the IT department spends its time working on?
  3. Governance: are there processes in place that will ensure that what IT works on lines up with what the company’s true business needs are?
  4. Partnership: is there a partnership between IT and the rest of the departments where each is taking actions to make the other more successful?
  5. HR: does the HR department understand what the company is trying to align and are they taking action to attract and retain the talent that will be needed to make this happen?
  6. Technology: are the right tools in place and available to be used in order to drive the changes that will be needed to transform how business is done once the alignment has occurred?

What All Of This Means To You

For way too long CIOs have been looking for ways to try to align what IT does with what the rest of the business needs. So far they have not been successful.

The primary stumbling block has been the simple fact that there exists an enormous two-way communications gap between the IT department and the rest of the firm. IT communicates using technical terms that nobody else knows about while the rest of the firm communicates using business terms that make no sense to the IT staff.

A first step in finally bridging this gap is to implement the six alignment process metrics that we’ve identified. When you become CIO these will provide you with a way to measure your progress in finally getting the IT department to become a meaningful part of the firm. Nobody ever said that this was going to be easy, but at least now you have a plan for how you can accomplish the impossible.

What do you think is the biggest barrier stopping the IT department from working more effectively with the rest of the company?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

When you become CIO, you’ll probably have all of the technical skills that you need to stay on top of today’s cutting edge IT issues such as storage, bandwidth, cloud computing, etc.  However, there is one thing that you may have forgotten to get: a law degree

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Niels Malotaux July 11, 2011 at 9:28 am

Excuses, excuses, excuses !
(see http://www.malotaux.nl/?id=excusesexcuses)
When I coach business or IT projects, I use the ‘Bullshit Stamp’. Every time I hear those excuses about things that we know for decades that hinder the results we’re expected to achieve, I use this Stamp.
If it’s some absolutely new issue that would pop up, I can understand that it’s a bit more difficult to handle the situation right the first time. But the things that go wrong are known and have been going wrong for decades (if not longer), so there is no excuse that you’re ‘trapped’ by such issues. Ref Cobb’s paradox (1989!): “We know why projects fail. We know how to prevent their failure. Why do they still fail?”
If it’s known for so long it’s either Ignorance (=incompetence of education) or Incompetence.

If you are a CIO, you do what is needed to achieve what you’re supposed to achieve. No excuses needed. If you need to communicate, you communicate. No excuses that it’s difficult. If you need metrics, you devise metrics that tell you what is really important. etc. By golly, why do we still have to repeat this? If you don’t know how to handle the CIO functions well, why are you appointed CIO?
Sorry for being a bit blunt. I’m Dutch.

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson July 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Niels: all of your points are well made. Here’s an interesting thought for you — just exactly how do people become a CIO? I believe that all too often it’s simply that you happen to be in the right place at the right time. You may not have the communication skills that are needed to be successful. Sure, you know a lot about technology, but do you know how to interact with the rest of the business? Where does one learn such skills? Just Do IT is a great sports phrase; however, it can be a bit trickier when it comes to running an IT department…!

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Robin F. Goldsmith, JD July 11, 2011 at 10:43 am

A major but seldom-recognized obstacle to IT/business alignment is their widely-accepted but flawed model of requirements. Both IT and the business focus almost entirely on the requirements of the product, system, or software they expect to create without first discovering the REAL business requirements deliverable _whats_ that provide value when satisfied by the product _how_.

When that product inevitably fails to provide desired business value, IT declares requirements keep changing, cannot be known, and the user/business didn’t know what they wanted. IT also declares the only solution is to iteratively change the product, often in largely a trial-and-error manner, making inability to understand the requirements a self-fulfilling prophecy. IT keeps repeating the process until finally something is settled upon.

In fact, it is unfounded high-level design requirements of products, systems, and software that changes so much–not the REAL business requirements those products have to satisfy. What is actually changing in a most inefficient manner is mainly awareness of those REAL business requirements that have been there all along but have not been discovered adequately.

It is a lot quicker, cheaper, and more satisfying to discover the REAL business requirements and then design a product, system, or software which actually satisfies them. The first step of learning to do it well is to recognize the flaws of widely-held current model.

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Dr. Jim Anderson July 15, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Robin: very well said. In the end it comes down to knowing how to ask the right questions when you are building the requirements. This often includes asking “why” over and over again until you get down to the core reason that the requirement is being created. Easy to say, very hard to do correctly!

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Mark Polsgrove August 11, 2011 at 9:14 am

In twenty years of IT experience, the biggest obstacle that I’ve seen to IT/business alignment is the lack of experienced successful people. Every CIO can say, “I’ve got people that can get this done.” The difference is people. When you hire a developer who has never used the term, “deductible”, what do you expect?

Reply

Dr. Jim Anderson August 12, 2011 at 8:53 am

Mark: right on! Ultimately I believe that it’s not just technical knowledge that is needed, but also subject matter expertise — what the heck does the company do? If you know both of these, then you’ll be able to work well with the rest of the company…

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