Thursday, July 15, 2004

Aligning IT, when there's not much to align to

There's an interesting discussion going on over at TechRepublic between Michael Sisco, a writer for TechRepublic, and a reader, "Rob_Pro." Sisco first wrote an article, "Practical tips for aligning IT strategy with company needs," that, predictably, advised CIOs to do a better job of aligning IT with the business.

Although Sisco's advice was good, Rob_Pro would not let him get by with the usual motherhood and apple pie, such as "Tip #1: Communicate openly with operational groups and clients," and "Tip #2: Find out what's needed." In an insightful comment, Rob_Pro pointed out that while the alignment problem is common at many companies, one should not assume the problem is all on the IT side.
While this is common at many companies, what I have yet to see are any articles on how to resolve these issues from the other direction. The advice given is usually to align the IT plan to the business plan, or something similar. Here are a few questions I would like insight on:
  • What happens if your company doesn't have a business plan?

  • What happens when there are no strategic goals for you to try and align your support efforts with?

  • What happens when you sit down with the business unit managers and they claim they are getting all the support they need from IT, but tell a very different story to the CIO?

  • What do you do when the business units don’t know what their needs are?

  • What are some strategies you can use to convince the CEO that you are a support department and need a direction to align yourself to?

  • What strategies can you use to persuade the business units to develop the business case for adding technology so you can show that IT is contributing to their success and the success of the company?
Almost every article I have read lately puts the task of correcting any misalignment squarely on the shoulders of IT management. What happens when the problem isn't necessarily the IT department? Here is the challenge: How do you address the alignment issue from the other direction?
With that set-up, Sisco had enough of a prompt to write another whole article, entitled, Aligning IT with the business: The other side of the story." This second article was more insightful than the first, and included good first hand experiences.

But Rob_Pro was still not satisfied. In a comment on the second article, he expanded on the problems that CIOs experience in trying to get users to clearly articulate their business needs:
I’m not looking for a department manager to tell me what their technology needs are, that would be hoping for far too much, and besides that’s what they pay me for. I’m just looking for a clear understanding of their business needs. If I sit down with ten business managers and ask them where the company is going in the next year and what our top goals are I will get ten completely different answers, many of them contradictory.

For example, if I ask the CEO what the sales goals for the next year are he will tell me we are doubling sales. If I ask how we are going to accomplish this goal he will tell me we are diversifying our product mix and increasing our client base.

If I then sit down with the VP of Sales, he will also tell me we are doubling sales next year. If I ask him about diversification, he will tell me we don’t want to go down that road, but instead we will sell more of the same product mix.

If I then sit down with the Director of Business Development, he will also tell me we’re doubling sales and we’re going to do it by utilizing a CRM package to better leverage client relationships and attract new customers with the same product requirements. Of course he doesn't want to pay for the CRM package, or try and cost justify it. That, he believes, is my job, but it should be obvious to me that we need a CRM.

Finally, when I sit down with the Plant Manager, he will tell me there is no sense in doubling sales because we lack the capacity to produce that volume of product anyway. And building a new line and hiring staff so that we can diversify is far too cost prohibitive.

This is the situation I face in trying to develop a plan. They can't tell me the business needs of the company, much less the technology needs. The answer to this problem might well fall outside the scope of "normal IT," yet from experience I can honestly say this is often the norm that I have encountered. Never mind having a written business plan to follow, there is no agreement on a non-written business plan.
In my experience, the situation Rob_Pro describes is very common. Many companies have much less clarity around strategy, goals, and objectives than one would like to believe. It is difficult if not impossible to develop a coherent IT strategy in a company where the business strategy is ill-defined. Not only is there not alignment between IT and the business, there is also little or no alignment between various parts of the business itself. When working on IT strategy with companies like this, I have found it more useful to back up and help the business leaders in a strategy roadmapping exercise, to first formulate and communicate a coherent business strategy.  Then it is a much simpler task to derive a strategic roadmap for IT.
Related posts
IT decisions that are too important to leave to the IT department
Escaping the ROI trap
Escaping the ROI Trap, Part 2

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