Isn't It Time To Move Beyond Alignment?

It's strange, but some things about the CIO role change very little from year to year -- and one of the most consistent priorities for CIOs has always been achieving better "alignment" with “the business.” But should this really be a top priority?

I can’t help it, I really dislike the term “alignment” -- it suggests to me that CIOs are trying to bring together two separate and distinct things: “the business” and “IT.” But the really successful CIOs already know this specific language sets everyone up to perceive IT as something apart from the business. And we all know that every business has technology woven intricately throughout -- to suggest technology is not a vital part of business success is simply wrong. So instead of talking about aligning IT with the rest of the business, we need to focus on ensuring the business is using technology to achieve defined goals and deliver business results.

Unfortunately, for many companies, IT appears to be in the software development business -- responding to “orders” from “internal customers” and busily delivering applications. CIOs need to ask: “what business are we in?” For most CIOs, the answer will undoubtedly NOT be the technology business. For these CIOs, the most precious skill IT can bring to the organization is business knowledge and process understanding coupled with technology know-how. By helping identify how technology can change the business dynamics and move the organization more efficiently toward its objectives, IT becomes the foundation for competitive advantage. In other words, IT needs to be in the business of helping shape business strategy.  

Even today, there are IT professionals who simply don’t believe it’s possible to have a seat at the strategy table. Why not? Possibly because IT has historically spent too much time coding and too little time strategizing. But CIOs can change this dynamic starting today. A few months ago we published a report called “Beyond Alignment: BT Strategic Planning” -- since then I’ve presented multiple times on this topic and worked with a number of CIOs to help transform their organizations. As a follow-up, we just published a report with some practical steps CIOs can take to move beyond alignment.

As described in the first report, adopting a business strategic planning framework that successfully integrates technology is a crucial element of getting from IT to BT. But to apply such a framework, IT also must go through a transformation. For CIOs looking to make this journey, it’s important to build upon a solid foundation -- doing the basics really well (keeping the lights on). After this, successful CIOs consistently focus on developing better business communications skills throughout all aspects of IT -- in many cases raising the awareness of IT as a strategic resource. Finally, CIOs whose teams master the art of keeping the lights on and communicating effectively get to see IT invited to influence and innovate across the enterprise.

So, yes -- I fervently believe we need to move beyond alignment. But that’s just my opinion -- what do you think? Do you agree or disagree? Post your comments below, or on Twitter (@NigelFenwick) or on our new CIO community.

Nex post: How To Get Beyond Alignment

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Let me highlight something in

Let me highlight something in the post that I think is key to getting to BT ... "the most precious skill IT can bring to the organization is business knowledge and process understanding coupled with technology know-how." BTW, I call the guy with such a profile a "BT Architect." Thanks Nigel ... I'm impressed with Forrester's initiative in the IT-to-BT move.

BT Architect

Hi Pradeep and thanks for the feedback. I'm right there with you ... I believe we are going to see many more senior business relationship managers and business architects transition to a new role, one I call the Business Technology Strategist (more to come on this soon). I posted a question on these new roles to our community - see CIO Community

Great post, and I couldn't

Great post, and I couldn't agree more.

For non-technology companies I have often found that the IT staff (including IT management) think they are a separate IT company. Both the business and IT seem to prefer it that way. IT likes to feel special and the business does not like to give importance to something they don't understand. However, the only reason the company has an IT department is for business results. Everything done in IT should lead to improved business results.

With that in mind, in today's world how can a company have long term success without techology as a key part of the business strategy (not a separate one). And making technology a key part of the business strategy requires experts in both areas, business and technology, working together to come up with the best solution.

IT will have a seat at the strategy table, it's just a matter of how soon.

How soon

Hi Ben,
There are some orgs where IT is already heavily involved in strategy development but they are rare still. We're working with companies to help them use capability maps as a useful part of a framework to move from IT to BT. I find using business capability maps is a concept that is realtively easy for both IT and business-unit leaders to conceptualize and agree upon. To speed up progress toward BT CIOs need to start with a good understanding of how the IT team is perceived today by business partners.

Robots and Christmas.....

How soon? Not soon enough, but before you know it. Like all technology.

This happened a couple of years ago when at Christmas dinner my sister-in-law said "my dad just bought some used robots for his packaging company." The casual mention of robots in a conversation with non-techies was a "before you know it" moment.

The business capability maps sound compelling and there is a huge need for it. Most companies are reactionary when it comes to IT, viewing it as a cost center instead of a capability enabler.

I have used roadmaps to help articulate how we get there from here with the business. The horizon is set at 3 years, and a business vision for each capability stated with a simple sentence. Then we work through how to get there with 1 month, 3 month, 1 year, and 3 year milestones. We keep it very simple and high level to allow flexibility, because things always change.

You make a good point about perceptions because IT is often a working with their heads down and forget about the key relationships. It is easy to forget how the perception of IT is critical to move things forward. Depending on how well IT keeps the lights on, that perception could be one of incompetence, or one of professionalism.