Just What Is This “Alignment” Thing?

IT Departments To Be Effective Before They Worry About Alignment

Once upon a time the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart said that pornography is hard to define, but “I know it when I see it.” In the world of IT it would appear as though alignment with the business side of the house is a lot like pornography in this sense – it’s hard to define, but we’re all pretty sure that we’d know it we saw it. A survey that was done by the consulting firm Bain & Co. sure seems to confirm this.

It’s always a good idea to make sure that we’re talking about the same thing before we get into a big flame war. It turns out that the best definition of IT alignment that I’ve come across comes from Brian Watson over at CIO Insight magazine who defines it as “…synching up strategies [between IT and the business units]“.

The kids over at Bain have found that the two sides of the coin, IT and business, all too often misunderstand just what the concept of alignment is. Specifically, what a lot of companies try to do is to dole out IT resources to different business units and then they say “Ta-Da – we’re aligned”. They really should be syncing up their strategies.

Bain believes that making your IT department more effective is the correct first step before you go worrying about alignment. Effectiveness is defined as being excellence in process management and execution. Of course, you need to be able to make these repeatable and consistent. On the other hand, alignment means that IT and the business have a proactive relationship.

I’ve always looked at these two parts of making the business run more smoothly as being joined at the hip. Effectiveness is how things get done every day. Alignment is the direction that you are moving in. Both are needed to have a well run IT department.

Do you feel that your IT department is effective? Do you believe that it is aligned? What steps are you taking to make it more effective? Do you think that you need to bother to align it with the rest of the business?