Business Alignment: The Eternal Priority

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 03-22-2007
I just can't shake it. Our annual survey of top IT priorities ranked improving alignment No. 1. Alignment has topped the list of IT issues or priorities for decades, and I sometimes wonder if there's anything new to say on the subject. But that's the thing about alignment—it always is, and always will be, a challenge.

Is alignment an eternal priority because it's an unsolvable, intractable problem? No. There are companies that excel at alignment; Capital One Financial, Harrah's Entertainment and UPS are known for integrating IT and business at the highest organizational levels. Good tools and frameworks are available to help any company achieve alignment-such as Jerry Luftman's diagnostic tool, inspired by the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model. Techniques in such books as Connecting the Dots by F. Warren McFarland and Cathleen Benko, and Alignment by Robert Kaplan and David Norton, also come to mind.

Alignment rises to the top because it's at the heart of business technology, yet is always changing. Technology is only a set of tools, a means to an end. What could be more fundamental for any CIO than making sure the work they do serves that end? And like any skill, no matter how good you are at it, one can always get better. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady may be the top two quarterbacks in the NFL, but they both believe they can improve.

Alignment in 2007 is not the same as it was in 1987 or 1997. How could it be otherwise? New applications and infrastructure technologies offer new possibilities and distractions. Today, CIOs who move their companies to Web and service-oriented architectures and virtualization wind up improving the lives of their customers and the productivity of their employees.

It's the changes in attitude that give alignment its protean quality. You know the drill: In 1987, IT was rarely pervasive, strategic, embraced or understood, but in 2007, it's all that and more. IT isn't alien to the rest of the company; today's business executives expect to be in on the IT action. They grew up on IT, learned about IT. Twenty years ago, alignment involved educating reluctant managers on what IT was capable of, and getting a chance to be a strategic contributor. Ten years ago, alignment was about conquering airline magazine syndrome—about juggling the competing priorities of eager managers when the economy, the Internet and the Y2K crisis were all taking off. Today, alignment is about working effectively with a much more sophisticated and involved management team, and with an increasingly global labor force.

At a time when improving business processes is so important, it's crucial to help business functions align with one another as well as aligning IT with them. As IT organizations rely more on outsourcing, alignment ensures the IT organization that emerges can collaborate with line organizations more effectively than before. Each alignment twist and turn brings new problems, new concerns, new adjustments, and new work that needs to be done.

Improving alignment may be IT's perennial top issue, but that doesn't mean CIOs are failing. It's a sign that IT is vibrant, alive and very relevant.