Bad times boost efforts to align IT, goals

While corporations have aspired for years to more closely align IT investments with core business goals, the current harsh economic climate has prompted many enterprises to formalize such ties, according to a panel of CIOs speaking in Orlando last week at Gartner Inc.’s Gartner Symposium/ITxpo. And panelists said those efforts are beginning to reap concrete results.

For example, the Washington-based AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons) has a department within IT made up of business analysts and project managers recruited from outside IT that’s dedicated to aligning technology efforts with the needs of the business, said CIO John Sullivan.

“Those are the most popular people in our organization,” Sullivan said.

After working with that business-IT alignment group for a few years, the employees are warmly welcomed back by their previous departments, which are eager to mine their knowledge of IT, he added.

Closer ties between business and IT helped the AARP slash the timetable of a planning and approval cycle for upgrades to its call center systems from the normal six to 18 months to less than three days, Sullivan said.

At TRW Automotive Holdings Corp., a Livonia, Mich.-based automotive supplier, CIO Joe Drouin nurtures the ties between IT and the business by mapping IT efforts to correspond directly with significant business processes — such as order fulfillment. Drouin has also recruited an IT business manager from TRW’s finance department.

The efforts are yielding tangible results at TRW, Drouin said. In a recent presentation to the chief operating officer on the merits of antivirus technology, an IT manager focused on the risks the company’s operations would be exposed to if its systems weren’t protected. The COO agreed on the spot to dedicate additional resources to secure systems, he said.

“The lines are starting to blur a bit — is this guy an IS guy or a business guy?” Drouin said of company perceptions of IT managers who work on projects that bolster business goals. “Other parts of the business are hungry for these people who are solving these problems,” he added.

At the Government Accountability Office, an agency that works for the U.S. Congress to scrutinize how the federal government spends money, CIO Tony Cicco uses business managers — rather than IT staffers — to make presentations about the effectiveness of specific IT programs.

“When a business manager gets up and shows how he has been much more of a success . . . we get a lot of recognition,” Cicco said.

The GAO’s IT department also regularly gauges the satisfaction of its users with customer satisfaction surveys, Cicco added.

Charles Iacovuo, a professor of IT at Wake Forest University’s Babcock Graduate School of Management in Winston-Salem, N.C., said in an interview that most companies need to do more to institutionalize the effort to bridge the gap between business and IT.

Organizations can use scorecards and service-level agreements to monitor how IT is performing against established goals and designate account managers to interact with business units, he said.

And formalizing these ties can become easier as more CIOs begin to report not to departmental executives but to C-level executives, Iacovuo added. “That forces the other business executives to accept them as a partner,” he said.

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