Why IT and Business Can`t Get In Sync

This just in: Successfully aligning IT with the business is hard to do.

OK, that may not be breaking news, but after decades of IT-business alignment talk, one would think the IT world would have this down. Instead, alignment efforts continue to be hampered by factors such as poor communication between IT and business leaders, a disconnect between IT objectives and business needs, and misguided reporting structures.

Which explains why IT-business alignment remains a top priority for IT executives in 2009. In fact, in separate surveys conducted last fall, CIO Insight and the Society for Information Management (SIM) both reported that alignment was the No. 1 management priority for 2009 among IT executives, and in the case of the CIO Insight survey, it wasn’t even close.

If that sounds like IT has a lot of work to do on the alignment front, it’s only because it does, says Jerry Luftman, former vice president of academic community affairs for SIM and the man who conducted its latest survey. “There is no one thing IT can do to improve its relationship with the business,” Luftman says. “There are a bunch of things.” (See box at right.)

CIOs and consultants seem to agree, however, about where alignment starts: communication. Most IT departments still seem to be unable–or unwilling–to operate outside their jargon-filled comfort zones, and that leads them to address relatively simple business needs with overly complex technologies.

Rudy Puryear, global IT practice head at consulting firm Bain & Co., says he constantly hears from business leaders that everything IT does takes too long and costs too much, and that they lack an effective dialogue with IT. “It’s kind of embarrassing that the average IT shop hasn’t made more progress on this,” he says. “Achieving business alignment has been the holy grail of IT for 20 to 30 years, but the dialogue is broken between business and IT.”

The reason? “They don’t have a language that works,” Puryear says. “The business wants to talk in business terms, and IT talks in technical terms.”

The potential consequences can be crippling. Business units start pursuing their own technology solutions, IT develops applications in a vacuum, and the next thing a CIO knows, he or she has multiple ERP applications, billing systems and customer-management systems. The IT environment becomes unwieldy and expensive to manage, and it becomes almost impossible to adapt business processes quickly to changing demands. At some point, Puryear says, CIOs need to consider British politician Denis Healey’s law of holes. “If you look up and you see you’re in a hole, stop digging,” says Puryear. “Stop adding more complexity.”

The communication chasm between IT and business has never been as critical as it is today, as the flailing economy throws one curveball after another at business. In this environment, the lack of an effective dialogue means that IT can’t properly analyze–or even understand–business needs, which makes it difficult for the business to respond quickly to changing market demands.

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