Taking the Lead in

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 01-08-2003

Capital One Exec Addresses Alignment

John Scanlon is vice president of Line of Business Technology Management at Capital One Financial Corp. His team of business information officers is responsible for ensuring technology business alignment for all of Capital One's domestic revenue-generating business units. What follows are his remarks upon receiving CIO Insight's Partners in Alignment Award for his company.

The nub of why alignment is so hard is that fundamentally, you're talking about cultural change and behavior change in people, and if you have kids and have ever tried to change their behaviors, you can understand how hard that really is at times.

Your typical technology professional has spent 10 or 20 years going to the same conferences, learning the same kind of language about how to talk about technology. Your business partners have done that as well, but they've been at different conferences and using different language and picking up different practices and behaviors.

I liken it a lot to a story that I'm reading a lot recently. It's a Dr. Seuss book about two different camps of characters, one who butters its bread on the top and the other that butters its bread on the bottom. In all other respects, they're very similar groups, but they have this seed of difference in how they view the world that really engenders difficulties in language and communication and breeds mistrust.

And that's the challenge that we have in IT-business relationships as well. We need to find ways to build bridges so that we're using the same language, talking about the same topics, and this will really get us to alignment in thought and in action and in practice. These bridges will also help, when things don't seem quite right, for people to grant each other the benefit of the doubt that they at least have the right goals—that it's just a breakdown in language, not a breakdown in intent.

One common misperception about alignment that I still run across within my own organization, even though I think we are pretty good at alignment, is that people can tend to think of it as a project rather than as a cultural change and as something you need your entire organization to wrap its arms around.

So while you may use projects and encourage using projects to move the ball forward, to get certain practices in place, it really has to be more of a cultural phenomenon, where every single associate in your IT organization cares about alignment and tries to work the practices of alignment into how they do their job. Your business partners need to make those changes as well.

I think another common misperception about alignment is that in the quest for it, we have to give up being IT. That's not true. We do still have a functional discipline. We do still have pretty common watermarks for excellence in our functional discipline, and we don't want to abandon any of that. Being a great IT shop, a world-class IT organization doesn't automatically give you alignment, but I think it's actually a necessary precondition to really be a truly aligned organization.

Many business people are now on the IT side. How does that factor into it? I think it really helps tremendously. Again, it's not absolutely necessary that everybody be a businessperson and an IT person at the same time. It would be hard to live in a world where that were true.

But getting business dialogue in business terms happening within the IT organization really goes a long way toward getting the right kind of language and communications with your business partners. So I do think it is very helpful to have nontraditional IT background folks in major leadership positions within the IT organization.

We've also learned some other lessons in our quest for alignment. Two things readily come to mind. The first is: Don't try and prove that you're aligned. It's kind of an unprovable thing; it's a never-ending quest. I do think that tools and techniques like the Balanced Scorecard and lots of other approaches to get the conversations going and demonstrate that you have the right intent are absolutely essential, but it is ultimately unprovable, and the more you try, the less aligned your business partners will feel that you are.

Taking the Lead in


Taking the Lead in Alignment

Secondly, don't wait for your business partners to lead this effort. I think in some of the research that I've read in CIO Insight, the biggest complaint that CIOs have is that the strategic planning process that our business partners use doesn't give us the information we need to do technology planning. It's often not far enough in range or gives the right kind of details.

We have a motto within our IT organization: "Assume and assert." If we don't have the right information, we'll simply put an assumption out there, telling people this is what we think it is, and we'll assert it back to the business. And we'll put caveats on it that say, "Hey, we're just making this up, we don't know that it's right, you have to tell us."

But we typically get one of two outcomes. One outcome is amazement. Our business partners tell us, "Wow, you've done a better job of telling us what our strategy is than we were able to do in terms of putting it down on paper, and we really appreciate it." That literally has happened in a couple of cases.

In other cases, we hear, "Well, that's wrong." And they'll send us some edits, and the end result is you get the information that you need to go ahead and take care of your part of the planning process. So being willing to do that is a big thing for us in our ability to be aligned.

It also helps the whole process of teamwork. It motivates us to keep working together, continuously.

In the short term, I think for an organization that's really serious about alignment, the biggest impact is really one of time. There has to be commitment from the top for something like this to work, and where fundamentally you're talking about culture change, people are not going to listen to what the CIOs says as much as they're going to listen to what the CIO does—and what the CIO's business partners do.

Therefore, there's got to be a lot of time carved out up front to get your leadership team bought in, for the CIO to say, "This is really worthwhile and this is what we want to accomplish," and then to get your business partners and the senior executive team at the company really bought in as well. There really is no substitute for spending time talking about an initiative or a strategy to get that kind of buy-in.

In the longer term, I guess I believe that we will need as technology professionals to rely on new advisors for how we think about our work and our business. That doesn't diminish the importance of engineers and architects and developers—they're still the lifeblood of what we do, but we need to also become comfortable having X strategy consultants and management consultants within our ranks, helping us have the right kind of dialogues.

Also, fundamentally, since this is about human behavior change, we need to be skilled in the softer side of business, people leadership and culture change, and that often doesn't go hand-in-hand with the more engineering disciplines that we spend a lot of our time on.

I envision IT organizations in the future having a lot of people within them that today you don't often find within IT. Ultimately, if you can continue to perform the functions of IT without really seeing where IT ends and the business begins, that might be one definition of knowing that you've arrived.