Why Business/IT Alignment Is Elusive

Successful business/IT alignment depends on completing projects that contribute to the company's strategic objectives. It sounds simple, doesn't it? But for some reason, it keeps eluding our grasp. It's an occupational hazard that IT executives deal with every day. They are aware of the need for business/IT alignment and achieve it on a peer level in the executive suite, but then something happens when the train pulls out of the station.

What happens is that the gap between IT and the business that was bridged thanks to the business skills of the CIO starts to widen as projects move out of the boardroom/approval phase and into the implementation phase. At countless meetings between IT and the business, questions and issues arise, and each one that's not handled well puts pressure on the business/IT relationship, as well as represent risks to the project. When the project is delivered over budget, late and missing required functionality -- the CIO is back at square one trying to solve the business/IT alignment challenge.

The problem is that IT organizations are woefully short on the business skills that are necessary to effectively address the issues that come up at these meetings.

At every meeting there's the need to negotiate agreements, communicate clearly, sell and resell the benefits of the project, market the IT project's role in larger business objectives, build effective working relationships based on trust -- the list goes on and on. These are the skills that every business person needs to succeed, and they are skills that are largely missing in IT organizations.

IT staff are usually hired on the basis of what technologies or software packages they know or what technical educational credentials they have. They have a predisposition toward focusing on technology vs. nontechnology factors when there is a problem to address. Their lack of awareness of the larger organizational dynamics at work around their project is a major handicap. When issues come up, as they do at an incredible rate in IT, they assume they're either technology-related or can be solved with technology.

Today, IT staffs are poorly equipped to handle the complexities and nuances that accompany the role of IT in a modern organization. The simplest of IT activities cuts a wide swath across the organization and has a myriad of constituencies that all have a part in the success of IT projects. And yet, in many meetings, IT staff don't have the business skills to consistently conduct successful meetings with their business counterparts. Each meeting only adds to the list of open issues, missed milestones, escalating disagreements and lack of communication. Management then rushes to its dashboards and pulls out its balanced scorecards and looks for the color red. And none of it addresses the root problem. The senior IT leaders will parachute in and get things straightened out, but it's only temporary and often incomplete. During the next month of meetings, this "business/IT skill gap" will rear its ugly head, and the next emergency project meeting will end without much alignment.

The irony is that today, IT organizations need business skills more than ever and the need will only increase as technology becomes even more central to the company's strategic plan. IT departments need to deal with an ever-growing diverse group of partners in sales, operations, marketing, finance, shipping, research, logistics and production. Without the business and soft skills needed to have successful interactions with these partners day in and day out, IT is never going to get recognized for the value proposition it can deliver. And it's not enough to have a few senior IT leaders who can handle these things. These skills need to be present throughout the ranks. Equipping them solely with knowledge of technical disciplines, software, hardware, methodologies and project management is a recipe for continuing project failures.

The current trend of outsourcing IT functions has also significantly increased the amount of business skills that IT departments need in order to manage contracts and relationships with external partners. These outsourcing deals have heightened the degree to which IT staff must be business people in addition to knowing technology.

The frustrating part of the job for many IT leaders is how much they do well yet how little of it is recognized. The problem is we focus too much on the part of the job that is visible: the technology itself. We can talk at great lengths about software, routers and wireless protocols, but we don't fully address the great companion of any successful IT project -- an effective and productive relationship with our business partners on whose behalf we develop all this great technology.

And although CIOs can't clone themselves, it's not against the law to pass along some of those skills that have enabled them to advance to a position of leadership -- negotiation, communication, diplomacy, conflict management, public relations and the ability to sell.

- Jim Carty is president of IS Value, a US consulting firm that specializes in helping businesses generate value from IT.

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