Understanding the Governance Side of IT-Business Alignment

When Marilyn Carlson Nelson was CEO of Carlson Companies, the privately held hotel, restaurant, travel and marketing giant, she used technology strategically to expand the company. In fact, the company has invested more than a billion dollars in technology, a sum one would not expect for what doesn’t seem like a high-tech enterprise.

“When I became CEO, I realized that we were in the technology business as much as we were in the service business,” said Ms. Carlson, who is now chairwoman.

The success from these investments comes about not because of the technology itself, but because of the way Carlson organizes and governs the company and because of the way that technology is managed as a strategic business enabler.

Carlson explained how it all came together in an interview with the BTM Exchange:

“We put together an enterprise-wide Information Technology Council. Each one of our operating groups, such as restaurants, travel, hotels and marketing, had someone who sat on the council. Our objective focused on the bottom of our technology infrastructure. We also created an architecture group, a subgroup of the council, to leverage the infrastructure based on a common technology platform. The Council set some common standards, which we lacked. We negotiated with each other about procurement so that we could do volume buying and licensing across our various industries or our various brands. We decided to do customer-facing software development in the individual groups.”

Notice in her words that this structure, the Information Technology Council, brought together all parts of the business. It focused on the immediate benefits of collaboration: a common platform, standards and joint procurement. It balanced enterprise-wide concerns with those of individual groups, where meeting the unique needs of customers was paramount. These are all elements of business technology management and convergence―as is a persistent focus on the customer.

As the sophistication of Carlson’s technology initiative matured, so did her sophistication in managing it. Carlson continued:

“We’ve refined the governance process for making capital investments over the years. The individual operating group has to justify its innovations based on either a defensive or an offensive position. Specifically, an investment has to either add customer value or make us more efficient. Whatever product or standard we decide to invest in has to go to the Information Technology Council for review and approval. For example, the CIO brings architecture and infrastructure investments before the Council to be negotiated and decided upon. Council members look at what groups the investment will benefit, what type of benefit the company can realize, when the investment needs to happen, what tradeoffs, if any, might need to be made if the investment happens, and where this investment ranks in the overall priorities for a given time period.

“Once the council approves the investment, it goes before the corporate-wide investment committee. This committee consists of the executive team, primarily the CEO, the CFO, the CIO, the chief legal officer, and the HR director. The technology executive for each of the businesses, along with the CEO of that business or the president of that business, presents before the capital investment committee, which asks due-diligence questions about the proposed investment. Investments less than a certain amount go before this committee. Investments over that amount go before the board of directors.”

Having started in 1938 as the Gold Bond Stamp Company, Carlson today employs nearly 200,000 people in 150 countries. It owns and manages more than 1000 hotel properties and more than 1000 T.G.I. Friday’s and Pick Up Stix restaurants. It also owns the $25 billion Carlson Wagonlit Travel, one of the world’s largest corporate travel management services, and Carlson Marketing Worldwide, a global marketing, events, and marketing analytics company. This is an impressive history of performance, and it was built on a framework of expertly managed technology.

Moving Towards Maturity

So, just how does an enterprise become more sophisticated in its use of governance and organizational design as Carlson has? First, you have to break this broad goal down into the four management capabilities grouped together under governance and organization. These are:

  • Strategic & Tactical Governance;

  • Organization Design & Change Management;

  • Communication Strategy & Management; and

  • Compliance & Risk Management.

These capabilities focus on enterprise CIOs and business executives concerned with enterprise-wide governance of business technology. They work to structure and manage the business technology organization, allocate investments, manage enterprise risk, and ensure that business objectives are both enabled and shaped by business technology.

Practical Steps

You’ll need to put into place a decision making body (a Business Technology Council) which brings together business and technology professionals to review, approve, and prioritize technology requests; and then put into place an upper management body (a Business Technology Investment Board) which sets policy and serves as an escalation point to settle disputes.