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Aligning Expectations

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 12-11-2008 Print

Aligning Expectations

In recent years, much of the discussion around IT's role has revolved around the always tricky issue of alignment. That very issue reclaimed the top concern for CIOs in 2008, according to the Society for Information Management's annual study. It edged out recruiting and retaining talented staff, which in 2007 knocked alignment from atop the list, where it had reigned for several years. Alignment also topped the list of CIO management priorities for 2009, according to our Future of IT study. (Click here for a PDF of the survey findings.) 

And much of the chatter around alignment--at least from the business side's perspective--rests on IT executives and their teams becoming more business-savvy. More recently, IT pros have turned that argument on its head, claiming that for their companies to truly be successful, business leaders need to become more tech-savvy.

That back and forth represents a significant obstacle. "There will always be an alignment issue," says John Sviokla, vice chairman of Diamond Management and Technology Consultants and a former Harvard Business School professor. "It's just the natural tension of having a cost center--which is both a direct and an indirect cost--and having the business operationally dependent on this cost center, without a substitute internally."

This cross-department bickering will likely sort itself out, predicts Barry Brunsman, a managing director with the consultancy Alvarez and Marsal. "By the time we reach 2015, the technical sophistication of both the client and the IT organization is going to be radically different from what it is today," he says.

That's true for several reasons. First, the next generation of business leaders will essentially have been raised on technology. They may not have toted a BlackBerry since the devices were invented, but they certainly have interacted with technology--and seen its impact on business operations--as they matured in their careers.

Likewise, technology has grown with each generation, becoming more intrusive--and, some would say, addictive. That leads to a new breed of business operative who doesn't shun IT, but welcomes it.

Several implications emerge from that shift. Business units will have a much deeper understanding of what technology has to offer them. On top of that, non-IT business leaders will have a better perspective on the intrinsic or inherent risks of technology and the change it can bring. That's an important point, Brunsman says: Many executives turn to outside advisors to make sense of technology strategies because they themselves have not developed a strong risk-versus-reward perspective.

Give it a few years, and that should change. "In the future, there will be less of that," Brunsman says. "That means the fundamental role of IT as a translator between technology and what it means to the business is going to be less relevant, because people will be relatively fluent in the language of technology. Today, people can make a career in IT just by being translators, but I don't think that will be a possibility in the future."

Subsequently, IT project management--a skillset traditionally cloistered within the IT organization--will become a core business skill. Business change doesn't happen without technology, so the management of it is sure to trickle out from the IT shop and into the business units.

That's not to say that IT pros won't be managing projects; they just won't be managing everything. "At the end of the day, most people grow up in their career delivering projects," Brunsman points out. "So, as projects in IT are linked, everyone will become IT project managers."

Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst focusing on CIO issues for Forrester Research, concurs. He and his colleagues see a radical reshaping of the scope and structure of IT shops in the future. Under Forrester's model, roles that used to be cloistered within IT will be decentralized into the business units. Sure, there will still be some technical specialists, but it will no longer be necessary to house them within an IT organization.

With that comes a splitting of business enablement. Corporate IT shops traditionally handled the brunt of IT project management, but with those specialties dispersed throughout the business, the IT department will cease its domination over it. At the same time, business will become more synchronized with IT, taking more responsibility for strategic and purchasing decisions, and putting IT executives in a position to help enable larger corporate initiatives.

Even so, Cameron doesn't see the model taking hold by 2015: "It's not likely that this model will dominate more than 20 percent of the firms by then."


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