Finding a Solution
That's not to say that progress isn't being made. Most IT shops have at least recognized that they can't speak in techno-babble and expect to communicate effectively with the business. And more advanced companies have realized that communication is as much about structure as it is about language. Even if a company has established a healthy dialogue between IT and the business, it's likely to duplicate a lot of effort if it isn't set up to connect similar needs across business units.
Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a faith-based, not-for-profit insurance provider, was looking to improve communication and eliminate wasted effort when it adopted an alignment strategy to center the IT-business dialogue on business capabilities--rather than technology jargon--and to ensure that IT had a holistic view of needs across the business.
The strategy proved itself in the past year when CIO Holly Morris and her team began developing an application for the company's phone sales staff. At some point, it became clear that the application would need digital signature capabilities. Concurrent to this, several other parts of the business had submitted requirements for capturing digital signatures. The IT team was able to match up those requirements and focus on building out the digital signature capability as a single, reusable service rather than a custom feature in the phone sales application. "If we'd not had our process in place, there's a good chance we'd have built that capability several times," Morris says. She estimates that not duplicating the effort saved the company $3 million.
Meanwhile, for years now, companies struggling with alignment have addressed some of their communication issues by hiring CIOs with business backgrounds and business managers with IT experience.
Still, while crossover experience helps to promote the spirit of alignment, getting rank-and-file managers to execute remains a challenge in most companies. That's because most IT workers operate in short-order-cook mode, says Kevin Gordon, CIO of corporate systems for insurance provider Genworth Financial. "Someone asks us to do something, and then we go do it," he says. "We need to be more proactive about knowing the business and finding opportunities."
That would require CIOs to develop a depth of knowledge about the businesses they serve--a depth they lack today. "What I've run into is a mind-set among leaders on the team that there's got to be a business sponsor," Gordon says. "It puts people into this mode of thinking that there's a business person who comes up with an idea and they translate it, rather than thinking we should be surfacing as many ideas as they are."
But even an IT department led by business-savvy managers can be undermined by something as basic as a company's reporting structure. Luftman and SIM measure a company's "alignment maturity" score on a scale of 1 to 5, based on answers to a set of alignment-related questions. SIM's most recent study finds that companies whose CIOs report to the CEO register the highest average score (3.26), compared with companies whose CIOs report to the chief financial officer (2.79) or the chief operating officer (2.97).
All measurements and strategies aside, real alignment truly is a state of mind. And no one has to be more attuned to it than CIOs. They can't afford to live and breathe alignment every minute--they've got an actual IT environment to run, after all--but it has to be on their minds a good portion of the time for it to succeed. "I don't know that I'm thinking about it overtly as I sit here," says Gordon. "But in terms of business processes and thinking about how we can make things better, that is a lot of what I'm doing every day."
Qualities of Successful Alignment Initiatives
Jerry Luftman, former vice president of academic community affairs for the Society for Information Management, has been behind SIM's alignment surveys for many years, and over those years, he's learned a thing or two about what works, and what doesn't. Here are what he considers the building blocks of a successful alignment effort: