Long the subject of countless articles, blogs, and seminars: Do information technology (IT) folks “get” the business? How do we finally achieve “business-IT alignment”?
Consider this: A few months back, I posted a piece on the fact that we're all now part of information technology, with users creating their own mashup applications and configuring services and systems on a dynamic basis in accordance with their own needs. IT is no longer the domain of the IT department. Paradoxically, it could also be said that anyone involved in IT is no longer has a job limited to "information technology."
Perhaps its time to put the tired argument of "IT-business alignment" to rest. IT folks not only “get” the business, they are the business. At the same time, a new generation of business leaders fully comprehends the role technology plays in advancing business in extreme competitive environments.
A little while back, Ian Thomas picked up on this ZDNet report out of a Gartner IT conference, in which Andy Kyte, vice president and Gartner fellow, observed so succinctly: “None of you are in IT; all of you are in business.”
Can you imagine people talking about “aligning” accounting and finance to the business? Or “aligning” the CEO to the business? That would be pretty pathetic, wouldn’t it? So why do we constantly fret about “business-IT alignment”?
If we wanted to get creative, we could even have anointed business-IT alignment as an acronym, and really snazz it up — BITA, anyone? We can even put it into a formula: BITA(x) = ROI(y). The more you increase BITA, the greater the degree of ROI achieved (still to be determined).
But when it comes to goals and objectives, the vaunted state of business-IT alignment is about as fuzzy a goal as you can get. It’s even fuzzier than ROI, and at least ROI often gets actual numbers applied to it. I’ve rarely even heard anyone describe what a business with business-IT alignment would actually look and act like. (Perhaps a 100% automated operation?)
Fred Cummins at HP also tackled this question, and quotes some other works in the field that suggest “business-IT alignment is dead.” For instance, Brian Dooley observed that “the vision of business-IT alignment has been unsuccessfully pursued by the industry since the 1960s.
One observer, Bob Evans, recommends looking at the matter of IT business value from a new angle, and doing away with the old thinking, which has led many a business down a dead-end path. He quotes business consultant Peter Hinssen, from his book Business/IT Fusion: How To Move Beyond Alignment And Transform IT In Your Organization:
“The IT Governance Institute puts it as follows: ‘Alignment is not a destination. Alignment is a journey.’ But it’s a journey without a destination. That’s a horrible predicament … . Alignment is simply a dead-end street. I believe it is time for a new deal. I believe it is time for a complete overhaul of IT, and a complete rethinking of the relationship between business and IT. I believe it’s time for a fusion between the two” because it requires the elimination of the wall separating IT and business around/through/over/under which alignment is supposed to happen.
Such fusion may have been in evidence at many of the dot-coms that sprung up a decade again, and driving the culture of online companies such as Google, eBay, and Amazon. But, of course, the walls are still up at most organizations.
“Collaboration became unmanageable” as IT operations expanded, Cummins explains. “The typical solution has been to formalize the relationships with processes and documents. The result is reduced flexibility, limited exchange of ideas and difficulty developing and maintaining a consensus. Agile development methods are an attempt to re-introduce flexibility and collaboration, but agile methods do not scale to large projects-they work for small, multidisciplinary teams.”
How to break down these rigid, formal walls? Service orient, Cummins says. Service oriented architecture, or the breaking down of business applications into services that can be assembled to map to a business process, “provides a basis for new relationships between business and IT. These relationships support collaboration in a number of well-defined contexts, so small teams of business and IT people can collaborate to address specific needs of the business. The contextual structure is determined by a shared understanding of the structure of the business and the systems that support it.”
So, rather than merely becoming “aligned” — with all the vagueness the term suggests — business becomes the driver of IT, and IT becomes the driver of business. What to call this state of oneness? “Fusion” is the term Hinssen suggested, but that’s already taken by a vendor. Perhaps a “tight coupling” between the business and IT? (How’s that for adding to the confusion ?) But perhaps the time has come to stop talking about “alignment” as if the business and IT were separate organizations. They are one in the same.