Year after year, IT survey results inevitably state that one of the top priorities for the coming year will be to align IT with the business. It is as if alignment is some unattainable and mysterious process and IT leaders prefer to avoid it out of fear of failure – or perhaps out of fear of receiving more work as a result. The topic certainly gets a lot of attention and is often the source of many articles and postings – such as this one, as well as presentations at IT conferences. After the requisite Google search, I found 3,300,000 results on the topic!
To make this posting standout and ascend above the rest of the chatter, I will describe what alignment is and precisely how to build it for your organization. That’s right, the first practical guide to achieving IT alignment!
According to Control Objectives for Information and related Technology (COBIT), an IT governance framework, strategic alignment focuses on ensuring the linkage of business and IT plans; on defining, maintaining and validating the IT value proposition; and on aligning IT operations with enterprise operations. While COBIT provides the definition of what alignment is all about, I will help explain how you actually get there in the proverbial “real world.” There are three stages of alignment: Order taking, Priority setting, and Strategy setting. If you get these right, you will be aligned with your business and be able to answer a resounding “YES, I HAVE ALIGNMENT” in the next CIO survey you receive on the topic.
The first step in building alignment is building trust. Trust is earned. Once you have demonstrated you and your IT organization can be relied upon to deliver value to the business, you become a trusted supplier of products and services. The more value you deliver the more credible and respected you become. Once your value to the organization rises and you are viewed as an enabler of change, you have the achieved the first and irreducible step in IT-business alignment.
After becoming a trusted partner with the business, you can then raise the ante and seek to become part of the priority setting process. The key here is to get your lieutenants to have a voice in the priority setting committees. This way, you progress from “order taking” to “priority setting.”
Most companies create committees for each of their major business processes, such as sales, customer service, accounting, etc. The composition of these teams consists of individuals from all around the company rather than monopolizing it with corporate stakeholders. Assign an IT relationship manager to each of these committees so they can partake in discussions to help set priority for business processes. IT relationship managers should have a full vote on decisions made by the committees.
It is important to ensure every project in your portfolio has a measurable business case and is aligned with company goals. It is essential that the committees develop long-term strategic plans representing the key objectives for each process area. Another important factor is they are all managed by a singular governance framework, which includes a document describing the purpose and process of setting priorities in support of company strategies and goals.
The final and most coveted stage in IT-business alignment is when IT is viewed as venerable part of the business. This is where IT and the business converge and they are indistinguishable. Be sure that the IT leader in your company sits on the steering committee responsible for creating vision, goals and strategies for the business. This committee provides the guidance and parameters for the priority setting committees discussed earlier since all priorities should be aligned with the company’s vision, goals and strategies.
Getting a seat at the steering committee table is not always easy as IT still has a perception problem in many organizations. IT has to get out from underneath the oppressive rock of being viewed as simply a service provider and become viewed as a true business partner. This is accomplished by demonstrating success with aligning and delivering upon the priorities described earlier. Remember, trust is earned – it’s a privilege, not an entitlement. Once your CEO sees that you can be counted on to deliver value consistent with the company’s core vision, you will begin to earn your rightful seat at the table to help create the organizational strategies. In my next post, I will share how you can communicate and market successes to build a brand for your IT organization and continue to earn the well deserved trust!