Breaking free from business alignment

Breaking free from business alignment

Four ways CIOs can break free from those old 'business alignment' arguments.

For more than two decades, ‘business alignment’ has been a favourite topic for conferences, surveys and training courses. Based on a very simple rationale, business alignment correctly argues that no part of an enterprise can afford to pursue its own separate agenda. IT was singled out as an area needing special attention ahead of other parts of the enterprise. For some organisations the strategy worked well. For others, it created some serious unintended consequences. Technical complexity became undervalued, and technology enabled projects expanded in scope, cost and risk. Some organisations became trapped in a spiral of commodity IT cost-cutting and expensive project overruns. Today, some enterprises are breaking free and are redefining a new alignment agenda.

The IT role can sometimes appear to be a thankless task, but sometimes IT’s response has just made the problem worse. Hemmed in by growing expectations, shrinking budgets and a diminishing tolerance for failure, some CIOs have opted to circle their wagons to defend staff numbers, budgets and internal infrastructure. However, generational change has delivered a technology-enabled workforce with little understanding or acceptance of the word ‘no’.

Indeed, while some organisations pride themselves on their tight control of IT resources, the very use of these tight controls has encouraged the growth of informal IT areas, hidden across the enterprise. Common drivers include the use of mobile technology, cloud computing and social networking with staff and customers.

But it is not all bad news. Some organisations are breaking out of this cycle, and with impressive results. Some common themes are emerging:

Forget “magic bullets”, they don’t exist

The technology industry is no more immune to the false hopes of fads and quick fixes than any other part of the enterprise. Unfortunately many fads just end in disappointment. A number of successful IT departments are no longer pinning their plans on magic bullets or waiting for greater role clarity. Instead, they are opportunistically looking for openings created in a changing business environment. Tough times can be good times for IT, as it creates opportunities to look at the business differently, and focus management attention on core outcomes and corporate productivity.

Forget “best practice” – focus on “most common practice”

Best practice can be very problematic for IT, because its definition often lies in the eyes of the beholder. This can result in endless arguments that bog down projects, and create highly customised, bespoke and risky systems. Best practice can often mean most expensive practice. A number of organisations are now questioning this approach, and are opting for package based solutions (COTS or SaaS) based on the notion of most common practice. Most common practice is easier to quantify. It can be assessed and measured through corporate benchmarks and through formal assessments of readily available solutions. Most common practice is based on the view that organisations rarely need to be unique in all aspects. Indeed, they only need to be unique in areas of key competitive differentiation.

Don’t be side-tracked by the latest commodity device

Generational change has created new attitudes to commodity devices, as the appetite for change grows relentlessly. There is little value in trying to hold back the tide. Indeed it is far better for IT to be seen as a leader of change than as an obstacle to be bypassed. Today’s devices provide a glimpse of much bigger disruptive changes still to come. Successful organisations are focusing on tactical strategies to deal with the latest commodity devices. They are then exploiting this opportunity to open up a much bigger strategic conversation about industry trends. For example, this means developing a tactical solution for today’s iPad requirements, while opening up a much more strategic discussion about Mobility and BYOD.

Business requirements are contestable – business outcomes are not

This may be the most difficult discussion CIOs can have with their business manager colleagues, but it is a necessary one. In the past, the business analysis process has commenced more or less with a blank sheet of paper. Within architectural boundaries, all things were possible, as long as the business would pay for the privilege. However this has created ongoing legacy overheads, and difficulties in adapting to changing business needs. Future project discussions are likely to be driven by a preference for common and packaged solutions. This means that if a packaged solution can deliver 80 percent of the required functionality, then how much additional cost, risk and potential delays will the enterprise be prepared to pay for the additional 20 percent?

Kevin Noonan is a research director in Ovum’s government practice. Email comments to

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