Do CEOs Get Alignment?

IT and business alignment is a two-way street, and the fact that many business executives don’t understand that frustrates Jerry Luftman.

Luftman, an IT professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology, conducts an annual survey for the Society for Information Management on the major concerns of business-technology leaders. He just completed the SIM 2008 survey to be released at its conference this fall, and for the sixth time in the past seven years, the survey of members of the CIO group deemed IT and business alignment as their No. 1 concern. Since 2003, only once–last year–alignment wasn’t regarded as the CIOs’ top management concern. In 2007, attracting and retaining IT professionals was the No. 1 concern.

The SIM survey revealed other major CIO concerns that relate to IT-business alignment, including building business skills in IT, as well as IT strategic planning and making better use of information.

Luftman, who not only conducts the surveys but also spends a lot of time chatting with CIOs, concludes that these business-tech leaders understand IT-business alignment much better than they did earlier in the decade. That makes sense, as many CIOs now see themselves as business managers first and technologists second.

CIOs understand the importance of IT and business alignment, yet alignment concerns persist because many of their bosses–CEOs and CFOs–just don’t get it. Many business executives still view IT as subservient to business processes, and that attitude won’t facilitate alignment. “IT and business should be partners,” Luftman says. “It drives me nuts when people talk about IT aligned with business and not IT and business aligned with each other.”

Luftman blames this alignment disconnect on the mile-wide, inch-deep understanding many corporate leaders have about IT. “Business executives use laptops and PDAs, so they think they know everything about IT,” he says.

What’s dangerous about many non-IT executives’ attitudes toward alignment is their expanding role in deciding how IT is used in the enterprise. IT is integrated in every aspect of business, and it will get even more so as technologies rapidly evolve and job roles among many technology and non-IT professionals converge. As companies outsource entire IT functions–coupled with the potential offered by cloud computing, in which internal technology platforms needn’t be supported in-house–key business-technology decisions will increasingly be made by business managers, perhaps without any input from CIOs and other IT managers.

So, what should CIOs do to get their corporate bosses on board with their thinking on alignment? Luftman offers this advice: “It should be the aim of CIOs to help educate business executive to understand and leverage IT.”

That’s only the beginning, but it’s a good start.

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