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Bored With Business-IT Alignment?

By Mardi Merdinoglu The same concepts and the same stories repeated year after year. Why do we keep talking about business-IT alignment?
May 2, 2005

ITSM Watch Staff

By Mardi Merdinoglu

Why do we keep talking about business-IT alignment (hereafter referred as "alignment")? The most striking fact is that, even though this issue has received extensive industry-media coverage, and one would think that the organizations take steps towards alignment, the issue is still with us. This paper explores possible reasons of why the problem persists and suggests possible solutions.

Why is it difficult to accomplish an efficient alignment?
IT groups spend most of their time with reacting to technical problems. They solve one, move to the next, and the same routine goes on every day. They hardly have any time to stop and think, "Why are we firefighting everyday? Are our customers satisfied? Are we contributing to the goals of the organization? How can we do better?"

There is rich literature on this topic, but who has the time to read it while the sales manager is yelling and screaming about a server not responding to the remote sales force requests?

Organizations must nurture a culture that values the employee time spent for honest and open communication as well as organizational learning. They must create the environment for these activities to take place along with necessary controls to prevent these sessions to become a "buddy-talk."

Periodic cross-organizational tours can help IT and business understand their dependency on each other. This is not a waste of time, as many tend to think. I remember myself when I witnessed how the application server, that I was responsible for, was controlling the conveyor belts at a product distribution facility and helping my company to ship products to customers on time. My entire view to my job changed at that very moment, and whenever I needed to reboot that server for administrative purposes, I started thinking twice.

Identify and quantify the goals - easier said than done.
Now since alignment is a hip term that almost everybody has heard but hardly done anything to implement (with the exception of some real success stories), almost all IT executives would talk about aligning their organizations with the strategic goals of the company. However, nobody outlines how to do that, and how much extra cash this effort would bring to the company.

After all, why would any organization spend its resources on alignment, if it will not benefit the company at the end? Just because it sounds good? Alignment itself is an abstract word, and it has to be converted to more solid terms. Yes, we are talking about the green here. This is not an easy task, but ironically can "simply" be done by communicating.

Take improving customer satisfaction. Let us first ask who our customers are. After coming up with the list of them, ask; what are their needs and how can we improve our services to them?

You cannot answer these questions by yourself. You have to reach them and ask. Collect the voice of the customer. Use surveys, and meet with them at a regular basis. Listen to their requirements, complaints and suggestions. Analyze their voices, and convert them into quantifiable goals. Of course, document, document, and even more document... There are many IT management frameworks such as ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library), COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology), and MOF (Microsoft Operations Framework) that help IT run as business based on quantified data. These proven frameworks can be utilized to help IT adopt a customer-focused and service-oriented mindset.

Let us continue with the above server example, and rewind the tape a little. IT is aware that a new product is to be launched, and this issue has been coming up during the regular meetings with the sales department. Sales informs IT that 400 salespeople will simultaneously remote-connect to the server and download information about this new product, and they need high availability during the week from 9am to 6pm.

They also inform IT that each salesperson is expected to sell approximately $1,000 worth of product a week. IT proposes to deploy two strong load-balanced servers to share the simultaneous heavy service requests in a secure manner, and explains to sales in their language what load-balancing is and how it would meet their availability and security requirements.

In addition, all these requirements and specifications are formally documented and approved by both parties. In this example, IT ends up contributing $400,000 / week to the company's sales revenues by aligning up with the companys strategic goal.

Yes, we all read these articles and wish we had alignment in our company, but nobody can accomplish it by himself or herself. Nobody is strong enough to direct the entire organization to the end goal of alignment, and nobody has extra time and money to spend on it while having to work on the daily duties. We need help from up above.

Lack of senior management support - Did anybody ask for it?
Support from the top management is needed for alignment. Yes, again blame the boss for not being able to achieve alignment. But before blaming the boss, did anybody ask for it? Did anybody show what the company is losing by not having its IT and business groups aligned? Even if somebody did so, how did s/he present it?

To achieve global alignment, organizations must launch company-wide alignment initiatives that typically analyze the overall business-IT relationships, and improve them to benefit the organization to achieve its strategies that at the end will result in with increasing market value. Since this is a global effort, the senior management support and championship needs to be secured by presenting not the popular lingo, but the costs and benefits in dollar figures. If there is no senior management backing for the project, it is doomed to fail.

In the aforementioned story on the new product sales; the IT and sales departments would not regularly meet to talk about upcoming service level requirements to begin with, because the time they spend on this activity is not going to be visible and appreciated. Therefore, nobody would be willing to give their time for this, instead of working on their daily tasks.

The senior management must prepare the environment for such a big undertaking that would involve the whole organization and introduce major changes such as potential headcount reductions and changes in the processes that are in place for years. In addition, alignment requires constant reinforcement by the top. If some groups are not cooperative, the senior management must intervene.

In addition, the maturity of the board reflects the maturity of the organization as a whole. It is hard to understand that, today, where IT's positive effects on business is undisputable, there is still no seat for the head of this critical organization in most company boardrooms. It is surprising that even at some big corporations, CIOs still report to CFOs.

This is just a reflection of a traditional perception of IT being a cost-center. This needs to change. Once upper management's positive attitude towards alignment gets more visible, it is going to have a ripple effect throughout the organization, from a system administrator at the headquarters, to an assembly line worker at the plant.

It is also important to sustain motivation throughout the project that typically takes long time, and the senior management can play a key role to keep morale high throughout the project. Without senior management support, alignment cannot be achieved even if the best IT management consultant in the world is brought in for help.

It is expensive and ongoing and going and....
Did I say consultant? You got the idea. You do not have the time to deal with this, and it is also very difficult to see your problems by yourself, and most likely you would seek an outside expertise to examine and tell you about the problems and the solution alternatives. Yes, that defines the profession of consulting and it is expensive.

Alignment initiatives can become lengthy projects, because they are not one-time tasks, but ongoing ones. Until alignment is embedded into the culture and into the process mechanics, the expert help must be kept within the organization. In addition, todays business environments are very dynamic and organizations need to re-align their IT groups with ever-changing business conditions.

For example, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act introduced significant changes to the internal company processes and controls that have forced business and IT groups to work together to achieve compliance within the enforced deadlines. Sustainable IT-business alignment is an impossible goal without changing the organizational culture, which is something that needs to be initiated by consultants.

There are certain characteristics that make alignment a complex project. The organization must be mature enough and must have a culture that encourages employees to spend time for communication as well as organizational learning. Organizations must create the environment for these activities to take place. In addition, IT must define its customers, services, and strategic goals to support the company strategies.

By exercising fact-driven and metrics-based management, IT and business can get together to quantify and document the service levels in a common language. Quantified costs and benefits must be presented to top management to gain their support for alignment that may result in major changes and may take long time to achieve. Alignment is a costly initiative that makes organizations reluctant to invest, unless it is clearly shown that the benefits overweigh its costs.

I presented some reasons that make alignment difficult. This is not the first article written on this subject, and it is sure not going to be the last. As long as businesses heavily depend on IT, this issue will be here to stay.

Mardiros (Mardi) Merdinoglu is an IT compliance/validation consultant with a mix of technology and management backgrounds. He helps IT departments to generate value from compliance activities, and attain/sustain compliance with a number of industry regulations (e.g. FDA / 21 CFR Part 11 for pharmaceutical industry), hence reducing compliance costs. Effective/efficient IT management and IT auditing are other topics he is passionate about.