Natural IT-business alignment

In the past several years, there has been a growing interest in forging greater alignment between IT departments and the larger organizations in which IT exists. Some authors have attributed this to the collapse of the dotcom bubble, which caused disillusionment and confusion regarding the promise of technology, and the re-evaluation of technology-intensive efforts. Some have noted that, in an environment where the question "Does IT matter?" generates so much debate, tying IT closely to the rest of the business is a matter of survival. Others suggest that technology provides companies with significant competitive advantage and therefore needs to be close to the business.

While I agree with each of these points to a degree, from my perspective, the answer is more fundamental. The so-called divide between IT and the business is a misnomer. At the best companies, IT has never been separated from the business, and these companies naturally know how and where to use technology. At these companies, technologists understand what the business needs, and business leaders understand the benefits of technology. And rather than installing the latest gadget just because it sounds cool, IT departments focus on enabling business processes and creating value -- both at the top line, through a focus on innovation, and at the bottom line, through a focus on efficiency.

This theme -- enabling the business to achieve value through innovation and savings through efficiencies -- is one that I have seen succeed at Pfizer. It rests on a few key principles:

1. Align with the business. While IT-business alignment may be the natural state in which I have come to operate, it doesn't mean that it's easy to achieve. Being close to the business means being close to your customer, which is critically important to being able to deliver what the company needs. This happens in big ways, like having yearly IT strategic plans approved by a board of business leaders; and it happens in small ways, like having each IT person sit close to the business teams he works with on a day-to-day basis. This enables IT colleagues at every level to be conversant in the explicitly stated needs of the business and to have insights into latent or unstated needs as well. In fact, it's a recognized and valued skill at Pfizer to be able to identify and act on latent needs in anticipation of the business side's formulation of any kind of requirements definitions. When business people come to senior IT leaders to ask about business insights and ideas rather than about strictly IT issues, you know you've been successful in alignment.

2. Focus on the business process. Processes are core to how a business operates. The applications we use to automate, streamline or standardize the business process may change, but focusing on the "what" of the process rather than the "how" of the IT solution is an excellent way to ensure lasting value.

In a recent article, Michael Hammer told of how Albert Einstein once asked his secretary to distribute an exam to his students. Upon looking at the paper, the secretary objected and said, "But Professor Einstein, these are the same questions you used last year. Won't the students already know the answers?"

"It's all right, you see," Einstein replied. "The questions are the same, but the answers are different."

What was true for Einstein's students is true for IT. How we answer the questions may change as we progress from client/server to Web-based to open-source technologies, but what we need to address -- those business processes that are at the core of how a company operates -- are problems that change very little over time.

3. Tell good stories (and have good metrics). Being able to explain how and where IT is adding value is a critical but frequently underappreciated skill. It's not self-serving to broadly and appropriately disseminate stories about how IT is adding value; it's a matter of survival. How will the vice president of marketing and the CEO understand the effect of IT if someone doesn't draw the connections for them?

Most business leaders don't look at positive sales-growth figures and automatically think, "Good job, IT department!" However, if that sales growth has come from online channels and IT has been a partner in creating an effective and efficient Web presence, then some credit is due. Just be sure to tell the story in terms that business leaders can understand: minutes of uptime since last reboot, for instance, may not be as compelling a metric to executives as the number of customers finding product information online.

4. Hire good people. It has been Pfizer's mantra for years that if you hire smart people, give them the tools to do their job, and measure and reward them on what is appropriate, then good results will more than likely ensue. People can be taught IT skills and can learn the ins and outs of a particular industry, but it's very difficult to teach common sense and the ability to learn new things. By the time most people reach the workforce, they either have these or they don't.

5. Operate with excellence. The best-laid plans, a perfect alignment with the business and the best intentions can all be undone through sloppy execution. It should go without saying that the best way to engender confidence and convince people that they can rely on IT is to consistently perform and overdeliver on expectations.

While not exactly a checklist, these five points are what I continually use to check myself and ensure that I'm doing what is in the best interests of my company. They have been guideposts for how the IT department has developed at Pfizer over the past 25 years, and I hope they can be useful to you as well.

Operating with excellence

Trying to tell someone how to "operate with excellence" is like trying to explain what makes the latest movie star cool -- it's hard to describe, but we all know it when we see it.

For IT professionals, however, I believe that performing consistently, exceeding expectations and maintaining your own high standards are the steps that provide the most important foundation for operating in a way that earns confidence and is the basis for a strong bond of trust between IT and the rest of the business.

Although each situation is unique, there are some broad technical guidelines IT leaders should keep in mind:

  • Stay current with new and evolving trends. While gaining experience with each new release of every application on the market could be its own full-time job, all IT professionals should be familiar with advances taking place in both the technical and business areas in which they operate. This allows them to understand and relate their day-to-day work to their environments and to identify opportunities before they become problems.
  • Use current technologies, and make sure you have a good architectural foundation. A good system is one that works tomorrow as well as it works today and can adapt and scale to meet evolving needs.
  • Using a mix of current and evolving technologies appropriately and basing development on the use of solid architectural principles ensures that systems are built with the rigor that is the foundation of a quality product.
  • Be responsive to customer needs at all points of the application life cycle. Understanding the proper role of prototyping, rolling out, scaling up, phasing out and eventually decommissioning technologies shows that you understand the customers' needs and are being responsive by operating in a way that maximizes technology's value.
Vita Cassese is vice president of global business technology at Pfizer Global Pharmaceuticals

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