Aligning IT with the business

I just got back from a presentation by a local IT services provider today. They where trying to beat the drum of IT infrastructure (all ways get my blood up). For me the key word that connects IT and the business is alignment! When I say this I mean that its about ensuring that the IT infrastructure and services are supporting the business by providing value (being a profit-maker or a force multiplier) rather than being a drain on resources (just being an overhead).

Achieving alignment is not easy, especially for organizations that have a large investment in legacy systems like mine. These systems have often been developed to support the business, eg, by automating procedures to improve efficiency. On the other hand, IT systems are now being developed so as to enable business initiatives. The process of alignment is about having IT systems that can respond to business needs.

IT infrastructure needs to support innovative projects.

This point is about investment: in research and development (related to IT). While being high risk (it may not pay dividends), if successful, it could give the business a distinct advantage in the marketplace. This again implies a sound understanding and acceptance of the potential that IT has to contribute to the organization’s overall strategy. IT is a tool, but by its nature it is a tool that can be used in many different ways, some of which are still (probably) yet to be discovered. Successful organizations grab advantages wherever they can.

Business and IT managers are working together more effectively.

This observation implies that there is a growing understanding of interdependence between those using the benefits of IT and those charged with providing it. In the early days of IT, new system development was often a case of ‘define the project and wait for the results some time in the future’. A common outcome of this approach was increasing lead time to delivery, often of a system that was no longer what was needed by the business. A move to collaborative development methodologies, where new systems are considered the joint responsibility of both users and developers has resulted in more effective (value-adding) systems.

Just being involved in strategy development doesn’t necessarily make a CIO valuable.

Although it has taken some time for many organizations to include IT executives on their strategic planning committees, some organizations have yet to understand the strategic potential of technology, seeing IT as only a tool, rather than as also offering the possibility of new ways of doing business, and new products. To facilitate this shift in perception of IT, CIOs need to be proactive in seeking out new technologies and during strategic planning sessions, in terms that are meaningful to their colleagues, promoting them as possibilities offering value.

Alignment between IT and the business is necessary for growth.

Growth implies change, and it is necessary for the IT infrastructure and services to be able to support this change in the organization. One aspect of this is the capacity of the IT infrastructure to absorb additional demands (eg, in transaction rates or more sophisticated communication needs, such as multimedia). Another is the ability to quickly respond to initiatives – this requires a services culture to be in place that focuses on the need to supply business value as its prime driver. However, striking the appropriate balance between future capacity and current costs is not necessarily easy.

As already mentioned, alignment of IT with the business is not necessarily achieved easily or quickly. Organizational culture (which, for example, may dictate who sits on strategic planning committees) takes time to change. Developing the role of the CIO into a meaningful business role also takes time. Changing financial priorities to accommodate research IT projects involves a new perception of the IT tool.

An important current debate is: Is IT strategic? Not everyone believes that IT is as important to an organization’s overall strategy, many in my organization, as the previous section implies. Some commentators believe that IT is now just an infrastructure technology and is no longer capable of providing a competitive advantage. I don’t agree, this mainly happens because CEOs are not asking enough of their IT infrastructure.

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