Is Strategic Alignment Still a Priority?

Alignment of IT strategies with business priorities might not be the foremost concern for CIOs anymore, according to the Society of Information Management, but it still matters.

For the first time since 1995, SIM members did not ranks IT-business alignment as their No. 1 concern. It came in second. [The top concern was hiring, training and retaining IT professionals.]

That became clear in mid-September, when CIO Insight published a story on some rather provocative research: a then unreleased survey by the consultancy Bain & Co. challenging the decades-old wisdom that companies should align their business and IT strategies.

Bain’s research found that most businesses judge their IT departments to be "ineffective," meaning that projects, at times, go past deadline or over budget. Before companies can successfully align business strategies with IT, IT must become effective, Bain advised. And the comments came pouring in, most of them opposing Bain’s findings.

That feedback reignited the debate over how businesses can best link up their IT strategies to correspond to business needs.

Still, several current and former CIOs agree that effectiveness and alignment are interconnected in many ways. "Ineffectiveness is caused by not being aligned," says Michael Gerrard, a vice president and distinguished analyst with Gartner who previously served as a CIO in the financial services industry. "You need to work on both at the same time, especially if your lack of effectiveness is caused by not being close to the business."

Others, though, suggest the debate goes way beyond those issues. Some even balk at what they believe are narrowly defined terms–particularly alignment, which they feel suggests that IT departments should run side by side with the business instead of within it, like an organ functioning within the body.

All agree that the concept of aligning strategies has progressed in recent years and continues today, as business processes evolve and the role of the CIO gains respect and acceptance from the business. (For more on the CIO’s role, see "Chief Possibility Officer," page 23.) And most believe alignment must emanate from the top, with CEOs and CFOs leading the charge to create environments in which IT organizations are intimately involved in planning and executing business strategy.

"Alignment is a culture," says Frank Wander, CIO at Guardian Life. "You want the culture to believe this is the way you should run the company."

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