IT/Business: As Aligned As They’re Going To Be?

I have some bad news — business and IT are as aligned as they’re ever going to get. Now, for business and IT, this really isn’t bad news at all; but for conference promoters and “alignment” gurus it is.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because various advertisements and fliers lead me to believe that we are at the beginning of a new wave of “solutions” for the “alignment problem.” My suggestion is to route these offers to the circular file and let their authors “help” someone else.

“Now, wait a minute,” you say. “If there’s one thing that we have trouble with around here, it’s business-IT alignment. Hell, that’s been our No. 1 problem for the last 20 years.”

I say, “Exactly.”

At least since the early 1980s we have been hearing that the No. 1 problem facing IT is business-IT alignment. It might occasionally get bumped to the No. 2 spot, but for the most part, survey after survey (including five of my own in the last 10 years) has shown that senior IT executives consider business-IT alignment to be their biggest headache.

Our normal reaction to such data is to wring our hands, declare a crisis, and search for a cure. Articles are published, seminars are convened, and consultants make a lot of money “helping” companies get aligned. Yet the “problem” persists.

The problem persists because there is no problem.

IT is filled with smart, dedicated people who want to do a good job. So is the rest of the business. But all these smart, dedicated people have different skills, different needs, and different responsibilities. Their day-to-day work takes place in the overall context of the company in general, but their respective tasks occur within the specific context of their specialties. This gives everyone a unique view of the company. When these disparate views must be coordinated to achieve a common goal — as they must be to create successful information systems — it is necessary that those involved try to bridge the gap between their perspectives.

So, business-IT alignment is a necessary part of pretty much everything we do in IT. To put it in stronger language — business-IT alignment is not a problem, it’s a necessary condition, so we had better focus on it.

Which is not to say that it’s easy, and because it’s not easy, we have allowed the pundits to label it a “problem” for the last twenty-some years.

Now, the answer to a “problem” is to “fix it.” Then, once it’s fixed, it will go away and we can move on to something else. Herein lies the rub in labeling business-IT alignment a problem. We call it a problem and commit to fixing the problem. But since it’s a necessary condition, it will never go away, so our fix must fail. We get discouraged, the business gets frustrated (because we’ve made a big deal out of “fixing” the problem), and a lot of time, money, and energy get wasted. All because we haven’t properly interpreted the situation.

Just Plain Tough

So the first thing to do is to accept that business-IT alignment issues will always be with us. When we focus on business-IT alignment — when we focus on it a lot — we are doing the right thing.

Achieving good business-IT alignment is tough. There is no quick fix. The key to good alignment is people. Assuming that everyone involved in a project wants to see it succeed, the key to success is giving the people the resources they need. Things like adequate workspace, a reasonable work environment (minimal noise, privacy, etc.), and space for small (2- or 3-person) meetings are some of the obvious but often neglected resources that encourage good results.

There are important intangible resources, too. Senior executives need to support the project explicitly. They need to define corporate strategy and flesh it out so individual projects understand where they fit in the big picture. They need to give projects ongoing moral support, too. This should take the form of personal interest in project progress and of making sure that projects have what they need to succeed.

This last factor is not just a matter of physical resources; it includes things like whether the relationship between IT and the business is one of cooperation or one of antagonism and whether there is enough slack time in the project to allow project members to work through problems and manage setbacks. When budgets and schedules get tight it is these last elements that usually suffer most — but these are often the things that make the difference between great projects and average projects.

The bottom line is that it’s just plain tough to deliver good-enough IT systems in most business environments. The dynamics of the marketplace reverberating through business create a demanding and ever-changing situation for everybody, business and IT alike. The only “cure” is for business and IT to try to understand each other as well as possible, to work closely together, and to realize that perfect business-IT alignment is a chimera that only distracts us from the reality that we are already all lined up.

Chris Pickering is president of Systems Development, Inc., and IT research and consulting firm. He may be reached at [email protected].