When you open an IT publication, join an online IT community, or participate in any IT event, there is one phrase that you often repeatedly hear: IT needs to be aligned with the business. My fellow ITWorldCanada blogger Stephen Ibaraki quotes Henrik Deckers of CIONET in his blog last week as saying just that: “A more classical concern for IT executives that has been on their agenda for many years is the constant challenge of aligning business and IT”. But what does this really mean and why is it even stated?
The reference to the IT and business alignment essentially implies that IT functions in the organization must help move it in the direction set by the organizational strategy. As IT leaders, we all know this, or at least we should know this. So why do we keep talking about it? Why do we keep pushing a topic for which there shouldn’t even be a debate?
IT is as integrated into the business as HR, finance, or marketing
IT as an industry, business, profession, and even cost centre has now been around for more than a few decades. Yes, it’s newer than more traditional spheres such as finance, accounting HR, and marketing, but it’s far from being brand-new. Whenever I browse a publication, I never see proclamations such as “accounting needs to be aligned with the business”. IT cannot be aligned with the business any less than these other organizational groups because it is an inherent component of any organization.
How we can spend time on more important things
The fact that there is still is a discussion on the topic of business-IT alignment must mean that there are IT teams that are not aligned with their businesses. Why?
Experience tells me that this situation stems from IT teams that compartmentalize projects as “IT projects”, instead of “business” ones. All projects are business projects; there is no such thing as an exclusive IT project. Perception in business weighs more than it is given credit, and by labeling projects as having a solely IT function, it creates segregation in the business. This situation demonstrates suboptimal IT leadership that does not put enough of the right focus on business problems. Rather, such leadership is content to run IT in a vacuum.
The solution is not to stop implementing projects that require IT expertise. IT leadership should instead be reinforcing the business strategy behind every project, whether it’s a hardware refresh, or applications that need to be built. IT employees should also understand how organizations utilize technology as an input to strategy, and what products and services can be introduced or modified based on new technology, instead of being strictly a support system to the defined strategy. At the end of the day, all employees, including those working in IT, will know that their actions enable the business to meet its objectives as set by its strategy. This will better integrate IT employees and projects into the business strategy and will cease the segregation.
However, this requires a different type of IT leader: an IT leader that is a business leader first and a technical specialist second. As more organizations buy into this approach, we’ll be in a better position, and will stop finding the need to prioritize the alignment of IT with business.