How do we (IT executives) get away from being typecast as technologists, unconsulted on core business issues and approaches? Face it, that’s a common situation and dilemma that we all encounter, early and often, and it’s the grist for a constant mill of articles and blog posts and books on business/IT alignment.
Lately, though, a part of that mill has started insisting that focus on technology should be avoided altogether by what they usually cast as the “next generation” of CIO. So I’m going to (again) be a bit of a contrarian here: it’s possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the wrong direction. I think that we can at times go overboard in our desire to avoid being seen as the geek with the pocket protector. Examples: some preach outright denial that there might be such a perception problem: don’t even think of using the terms “IT” and “business”, they urge, and they recommend against ever discussing “alignment” as a goal. Stop referring to the “business” as something separate, they recommend; IT is just as much part of the business as anything else! Similarly, their advice is “avoid discussing the technology itself.” As if a mere shift in language could solve the perception problem and automatically propel the CIO into the inner circle of decision-makers.
Here’s the gist of how I see it, though: in many (I daresay most) companies, the path of IT from high priesthood to strategic key playerdom has not really been fully traversed: in other words, greater alignment IS still needed of IT with “the business.”
In many companies, there’s still a trust problem. IT is arcane. IT can be as resented as a roadblock as the in-house corporate counsel types who veto certain kinds of corner-cutting. Of course we’re “part of the business” (and increasingly so), but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to continue to focus on breaking down the walls that linger. The walls, in many/most places, are a reality, and it’s going to take steady, relentless, active work, not just a shift in language, to scale them. What especially will not help our effort to do that is if we embrace this odd trend of sneering at technology as a lesser-order concern—basically, positing that we should let someone else do that while we do the important (strategic) stuff.
In other words, I differ (vehemently) with those folks who now look down on such things as the need to align IT with the business, or who don’t recognize the benefits that come from regarding people as “internal customers”, or who recommend even avoiding using the terms “IT” and “business”. While the basic spirit behind those sentiments is of course valid—again, it’s undeniable that IT is part of the business, as much as any other department—it is in fact IT that has a problem in how it’s perceived by other elements of the company, going back to the high priesthood. Let’s be frank: IT folks have often been snooty, vague, cagey even, about what we do, why we do it, and how we’re meeting the company’s business needs as a whole. Deprecating the important progress and mentality shift that’s occurred in the last few years (that is, the high priesthood evolving to a service mentality) is exactly the wrong approach.
And somehow, inexplicably, the deprecators are getting louder, despite years of research and general agreement on the value of approaches such as IT governance, the ongoing need for IT/business alignment, etc.
Taken to an extreme, insisting loudly that IT is part of the business can extend to feeling that IT knows just as much about what’s good for certain business processes (say, manufacturing or shipping or collections or whatever) as the people executing those functions on a daily basis. From there, it’s just a small but perilous step back into the old sort of IT arrogance, where systems were designed and deployed with little or no feedback from the actual users. I exaggerate? Quite possibly, but I’ve seen it happen.
IT needs to both know its place and insist on its place, not one or the other. Here’s another example of a truly ham-fisted (even though well-intentioned) attempt to align IT more closely with business: I took over as CTO at a high-profile internet company, in the midst of deep, bet-the-company changes to its main product, a consumer-facing web site. I learned in my first few weeks that my predecessor had initiated a robot project. His idea was apparently that he’d program this robot to walk the halls of the company, greeting people and thus making them feel more comfortable with technology. As Dave Barry is fond of saying, I am not making this up. Needless to say, this project swiftly became a laughingstock across the company, representative of IT embracing technology for technology’s sake, completely OUT of alignment with business needs. Meanwhile, systems were crashing, projects delayed, etc. This CTO somehow thought he was being strategic and business-oriented, but he actually was just being plain clueless, and more tech-focused than ever.
With IT’s background and history, the push towards IT/business alignment is ongoing and needs to be continual, rather than dismissed as something we’ve now evolved beyond. Even more, alignment mustn’t be deprecated as somehow beneath the higher goal of strategy. It’s not an either/or, and it most certainly doesn’t happen through mere declaration. And openly striving for alignment with our peers is nothing that anyone should present as a taboo or a sign of weakness. Additionally, at the same time that we serve as service providers to the company, we can and must be strategic in our outlook. This shouldn’t be either a surprise or controversial; in fact, excellence in tactical delivery is the ante that gets you to the strategic table.
It’s taken decades to get where we are—and I’d say (given, for example, the anecdote I cite above) that most of us are not really there yet anyway. Let’s not risk reinstating the “ivory tower” of strategy, devoid of the reality that comes from grappling with the actual pragmatics of implementation.
So, here are MY three tips on how to help convert your CEO’s understanding of where IT fits into the bigger picture. You’ll notice the emphasis of these points is quite different from the similar list in the piece I’m responding to here: in particular, my points stress a healthy balance between strategy and tactics, technology and business.
- Make sure there’s a rock-solid prioritization mechanism for all projects, where the priorities are clearly set, the tradeoffs carefully examined, and tough choices explicitly made and regularly revisited by the group of senior management, including the senior technology executive, who are jointly responsible for the business success of the company. Focus on IT governance, Project Portfolio Management, etc.
- Speak up visibly and strongly to ensure that “roof projects” are given appropriate attention and priority. Build for the day after tomorrow rather than just for tomorrow. You in IT are a key advocate for this sort of basic corporate responsibility; you have and need to exercise your equal seat at the table. And don’t let a misguidedly monomaniacal focus on strategy derail your obligation to keep the trains running on time. Nothing undermines the case for IT to be viewed as having a greater strategic role more than if the company is experiencing ongoing crises in basic delivery and systems.
- Be the straw that stirs the drink. IT, given a leader with appropriate vision and perspective, can and should be a natural cross-functional leader in the enterprise, both initiating business innovation AND espousing tactical responsibility. They go hand in hand.
Let me end by quoting my colleague Steve Romero, who wrote, “Recognize that the “achievement” of alignment does not mean you’re done. This is where the “journey” analogy comes in. Think of IT-Business Alignment as “getting your head above water.” Once you reach the surface, you are not done. You need to keep treading water or you sink again. IT-Business Alignment is something that must be maintained as opposed to achieved.”
- Michael Krigsman, “IT failure? Blame your CEO.” February 16, 2010
- Steve Romero, “IT-Business Alignment is Not a Meaningless Catchphrase“, October 28, 2009
- Michael Pattison, “Is IT – Business Alignment Meaningless?“, November 6, 2009
- Bob Evans, “Global CIO: Suicide Strategy For CIOs: Aligning IT With The Business“, October 13, 2009
- Fred Cummins, “Is Business-IT Alignment Suicide for the CIO?“, October 21, 2009
- Mary Nugent, “The Four Phases of IT/Business Alignment“, December 10, 2004
- Paul A. Strassman, “What is Alignment? Alignment is The Delivery of the Required Results“, Cutter IT Journal, August 1998