Approaching Alignment Step by Step

When I first started in full-time consulting, back in 1985, I encountered the relatively new work of the three Johns: Rockart, Henderson and Sifonis. Their combined research at the Center for Information Systems Research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management set the agenda for much of the thinking about aligning business strategy and technology over the ensuing decade. “Strategic information systems planning,” as we called it back then, sought to ensure an effective connection between where a business wanted to go and the investments in business automation needed to get it there.

Late last year, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with one of the Johns (Henderson, now at Boston University) and revisiting some of these same issues. Henderson’s research continues to demonstrate that despite the obvious benefits IT alignment promises, it has remained a challenging and elusive goal.

In my view, even the most seemingly successful efforts are doomed to disappointment—for two simple reasons. First, it’s too hard to get everyone to agree on what’s actually needed; and second, all the important things, most of which we can’t control, change too fast.

As an industry, we have invested a lot of intellect and resources in fixing these two factors. We now have “strategic formulation” processes that take a few days or weeks instead of months or years. We can get “consensus” that actually means something. We can significantly accelerate business automation delivery with better technology, better development and better deployment. We get closer all the time. But a large corporation is just too extensive, too heterogeneous and too dynamic for any point-of-time focused process to be truly successful. We need to recognize this and move on. If we can’t solve the whole IT alignment problem, maybe we should look for a problem we can solve.

The good news: There are a lot of such problems. We can focus on the performance of the IT organiza-tion and consistently improve it. We can focus on simplifying the frighteningly complex edifices of technology that we have accreted during the past 25 years by actively retiring older technologies and choosing fewer core technology platforms. And over time, we can learn to adapt effectively to the changing demands of the businesses we support.

Along the way, we can continue to listen to our customers—both internal and external. We can talk to each other and share ideas that seem to work most of the time—and avoid those that never seem to work. We can partner with core technology vendors to make their products more relevant to our business customers.

And there are some emerging technologies that might help out. As process management technology matures, it will be easier to align technology with business processes and to change capabilities quickly when process needs change, as we are already seeing in supply chain applications. Service- and component-based architectures will help us speed up the consolidation process and focus more easily on the truly differentiating uses of technology in our businesses. And as “programming” tools become more accessible to business users (think “assemble from a picture” rather than “write code”), we can involve more and more people in the continuous creation of business automation capabilities that match business needs.

And five or 10 years from now, maybe we can finally stop worrying about being aligned.

John Parkinson is chief technologist for the Americas at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

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