Three Steps to Improving Business-IT Alignment
To increase communication between IT and the business side, change your vocabulary, create business relationship managers, and establish governance processes.
By Risa Fogel
There is much debate about the term "business-IT alignment." Some would argue that alignment is an elusive goal that can be attained only by a small number of organizations in which everyone loves the help desk and the technology budget is big enough to fund any stakeholder-proposed project. Others find the term offensive since we are all "the business" and setting ourselves apart is detrimental to our being seen as business leaders. Regardless of your view, something is clearly wrong or we wouldn't talk about business-IT alignment so much.
What if we framed business-IT alignment differently and regarded it as a failure to communicate? The foundation for effective communication starts with the CIO and his or her strategic relationships, but it requires more than just strong relationships for success. You need to change the vocabulary used to conduct business, get talented people to help with the conversation, and provide transparency into IT activities and spending. With this in mind, I offer the following three steps for bridging the business-IT communication gap.
Change your vocabulary. It's likely that you are in your present role because you are forward thinking and understand how to adopt new technologies to impact your business. However, talking about this technology does not always serve you well. It is important to move away from using technical terms or talking about the challenges you face as a CIO. Instead, your conversations should be tied to business goals and use a business frame of reference. For strictly technology-based investments such as infrastructure upgrades, frame the conversation in terms of how it will solve an existing problem (i.e., a lack of prior investment) or how it will enable future business growth (i.e., the ability to support a growing mobile workforce). When requesting additional budget, be sure to explain what the business needs and how your team will be able to meet these needs only if it receives more funding. If you are transforming your organization, ensure that you can explain how the end state will better support the organization and its business goals, not just how the changes will make the IT team more effective.
Create business relationship managers. In order to help foster communication and understanding, many organizations are establishing business-facing roles that have primary responsibility for establishing and maintaining relationships between IT and the business. Although job responsibilities may vary, this liaison role supports alignment by balancing expectations, priorities and service levels and by encouraging cross-functional collaboration. The role of business relationship manager requires a balance of technology and business acumen and the ability to explain business and technology challenges with equal clarity. The business relationship manager must also possess the ability to challenge stakeholders and technicians about the status quo, enable change across the organization, and know that they have the CIO's support in taking these risks. Having a team of trusted advisors embedded in business departments throughout the enterprise extends your work relationships and gives your department a valuable view into the company's day-to-day activities.
Establish governance processes. An important tenant of good communication is transparency. Implementing governance processes provides visibility into decision making and spending, thereby demystifying what IT does. Done right, governance takes decisions away from IT and puts them in the hands of those who have a vested interest in the success of initiatives and projects. This means that instead of you advocating for a particular project, the business stakeholders present the business case to the CFO or appropriate committee. While there can be hesitancy to provide this type of insight into IT spending and resource planning, doing so often leads to stronger relationships and partnerships and can help identify common needs across disparate user groups. This knowledge can also improve communication as more people become knowledgeable about the challenges IT faces trying to meet user demands.
Whether we call it business-IT alignment or not, the desired state for a CIO is to be respected and valued for his or her knowledge and ability to contribute to meeting organizational goals. We want our peers to know that we understand their challenges and have ideas about how to solve them. In order to get that respect, to have that seat at the table, you must communicate in the words of your business. Talk about business goals and capabilities, not hybrid clouds and terabytes of data. Hire knowledgeable people and get them embedded in the business so they can listen, learn and teach. Provide a view into what IT does and why you are doing it, and allow others to help make those decisions. Adopting these strategies will help provide two-way communication, giving you and your business colleagues a common ground for advancing the conversation.
About the Author
Risa Fogel is a senior managing director at Cushman & Wakefield where she is responsible for global business solutions. She has led global transformation efforts and is experienced in working with public, private and governmental organizations. Fogel is a former president and trustee for the New Jersey Chapter of the Society for Information Management. You can follow Fogel on Twitter via @RisaFogel.
To read her previous CIO Insight article, "How to Get Work Done," click here.