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Monday, 17 January 2011

Aligning IT with the Business - not again!

Surely too much has already been said on this topic for it still to have any value to CIO’s and IT managers.  It appears not. 

Lately, a number of business surveys (notably NCC www.ncc.co.uk but also Diamond http://bit.ly/dUDI4m and McKinsey http://bit.ly/dIRxeP) have placed the need to ‘Align IT more closely with the business.
How sad. Alignment is an absolute necessity and a fundamental operating principle for any IT team.  And it really should have been put bed some time ago.  But this reported ongoing need highlights how is difficult it is to achieve.  And perhaps it is harder still in these challenging times, when the pressure to cut and contain is at its greatest.  But, 

- Is cutting the right way to go?  
- Is it inevitable that you should respond with a Scrooge like focus?
- Are you really aligning IT with the true business needs if you do so?  
Outside your business, the changes taking place are as great and as fast as they have ever been.  Competitor pressure is intense as existing and new players find new business models and customer expectations are changing rapidly and their demands are growing for speed, information, excitement, accessibility, financial and emotional rewards, and instant feedback and gratification.  
Inside your business everyone has become so much more technology savvy and now believe (even more than before) that they could do this IT stuff themselves.   Alongside, enhanced abilities to capture and manipulate data present opportunities to make cross functional processes more efficient and there is also the ability to better use business intelligence and analysis tools to improve executive decision making.
IT is integral to all these changes and in all these ways, this feels like a period of time for opportunities to be grasped by IT, not a time for it to retreat into its shell.  This is a time to be aligning IT with your organisation’s strategy by helping people in the business to understand the potential that exists, not the limitations.  In other words, I do not believe that it is the time to simply comply and cut costs.
Following, Enabling, Leading
In my book (Align IT: Business Impact through IT), I proposed three types of alignment; Following, Enabling and Leading.  Following entails IT delivering reliably, on time, and on cost; in other words simply delivering what the business expects.  This is the entry level of alignment and represents a hygiene level of operating performance.  To get there, IT needs to be able to listen to what the business wants to achieve, deliver it, and make sure that operationally IT doesn’t get in the way.  This is the stance to be taken if your IT team is just going to follow the cost cutting/stand-still mandate.
On the other hand, Enabling, is much more demanding. It is about enabling the business to achieve its goals through IT.  Whilst IT remains pretty much in a support role, it is more central to delivery and growth.  To perform at this level requires that IT has a much deeper understanding of the business and its strategic aspirations.  That means much more than passively listening to the business’ expectations, it also demands that IT must:
  • Actively engage with business thinking and actions
  • Listen naively (i.e. not just hearing what you want to hear)
  • Open up the IT team to feedback from the business so that they learn and improve
  • Be very clear about the business success criteria (e.g. growth, value creation, target markets, return on capital etc)
This higher level of performance can be difficult, especially if the business itself is not clear about what it wants to achieve or has been knocked off course by recent events.
And here is the opportunity for IT to Lead.  If the business is unclear or unsure, then they need help.  Given the opportunities presented by the changing world and customer demands that I have described, IT can step into the breach and help the business to explore and find the potential that exists.
To succeed will demand that IT goes beyond the naive listening skills and empathy required by Enabling and moves towards:
  • Helping others to see possibilities and opportunities that are hidden to them 
  • Establishing an interacting network that can explore, learn and develop thinking
  • Engaging and inspiring executive colleagues an senior teams
  • Improves boardroom discussions and decision through their personal intervention and the knowledge and information that IT brings to the table
The only good strategy is one that delivers, and therefore you need to ensure that that execution follows insight and planning and to succeed you need to be strong in the Three C’s - Clarity, Commitment, Capability.  Best to see my earlier blog on this topic (http://richardwyatthaines.blogspot.com/2010/12/3-cs-what-and-why.html) and I won't repeat the content here.

So, the choice is yours - are you going to stand still or move on; are you going to take orders or shape the future; are you going to control costs or leverage the opportunity? Are you going to Follow, Enable or Lead?
Your choice, your responsibility, your credibility, your opportunity.

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