A lot of IT/IS (Information Technology / Information Systems) professionals such as myself understand that it is no good just being technically skilful; you need to be able to understand and translate business requirements into IT/IS deliverables. The smarter of these people took MBA’s to help underpin that understanding.
In 1999 when I started my MBA, 20% of the class were from either an IT management or business analysis background, what was common to all of us was the understanding that IT/IS needed to evolve and we needed to be at the forefront of that change.
What I don’t think any of us understood at the time was that a lot of businesses were not ready or did not understand the role that IT/IS could play and still viewed IT/IS as simply a necessary evil or financial drain.
To this day little has changed; research I conducted back in 2002 showed that less than 10% of companies understood the term strategic alignment and even less had any idea how to align their business needs with the IT/IS deliverables.
A generation divided
Whilst business leaders are often still out of touch with technology, Generation X (1980s 1990s) and even more so with Generation Z (2000 onwards) are computer literate and technology aware and their requirements from IT/IS are very different from their parents and they are becoming more demanding as their knowledge increases.
The current IT/IS models employed are inflexible and take far too long to implement. Bureaucracy and misunderstanding is ingrained on both sides of the Business and IT/IS divide.
Instead of cooperation there is mistrust, instead of harmonisation there is division. Yet we are often looking for the same things.
Strategic alignment (one size doesn’t fit all)
Unlike the majority of experts in this area I don’t think there is a golden model which fits every organisation’s needs. If there was I think we would be further down the road than we currently are, additionally attitudes need to change and this is without a doubt going to be the most difficult aspect.
Firstly to change people, they need to understand the incentives, naturally human beings are cautious only accepting change if it clearly communicated and there are genuine benefits to be made from making the changes.
During my 20 years in ‘IT’ and senior management I have found that no two businesses are the same. They may differ by cost, customer service, product, delivery, support or in more ways than I have time to mention.
But if they are offering the same service, manufacturing the same product, or selling products from the same distribution chain, how do you stand out in the crowd and more importantly stand out when trying to recruit the best talent.
Strategic alignment is the answer; the harmonisation of the business’s needs with the IT/IS deliverables ensuring that the organisation is equipped for anything the 21st Century can throw at it.
What organisations are looking for
In my opinion agility is the key to a successful business in the 21st Century, the ability to be able to adapt and change as business requirements change is critical for survival. Globalisation means that often you are no longer simply competing against your peers in your geographic region you are competing against organisations from all over the world.
So what are organisations looking for: “To stand out from everyone else” this could be to create something new in a market, it could be to modify a service or to simply enable B2C (business 2 customer) or B2B (business to business) communications. The aim is often the same: be better, smarter, faster, cheaper, and more reliable than the competition.
So the question is? How do we become this agile organisation changing to our customers’ requirements and demands?
Can an alignment model work?
Alignment models, in fact any change, can only work if the people at the top want it to work and this commitment is communicated throughout the organisation. Understanding why change is required and being able to successfully communicate this to everyone in the organisation is vital.
Once communicated it needs to have a senior champion who has the authority to drive the vision forward and is able to successfully take the organisation along on the ride. It sounds difficult but in reality once the organisation commits fully to the path it can be a smooth transition.
Changes to the organisational culture and sub culture needs to be carefully managed by getting everyone’s buy in at the beginning and keeping the communication channels open throughout. The changes can often be implemented very successfully as people start to see how it benefits them.
Creating an alignment model should not be seen as a cost or staff cutting exercise. Costs will be reduced as a by product of the effort, however, the efficiencies and therefore the savings may take time to become tangible and may not be as initially expected.
An alignment model can not only work, it can create opportunities throughout the organisation, help to break down silos fostering better organisational communication and help building better inter departmental relationships. It can be used as an enabler for change and a challenger for the status quo approach.
Creating an aligned organisation
I would like to say ‘simply’, but the answer is it is not simple, if it was we would all be doing it by now; it takes hard work, commitment, trust and leadership. If anyone of these qualities is missing the end result can at the extreme leave the organisation struggling to survive or alienate the very people needed to deliver the vision.
Get it right and not only does the business open up opportunities it may only have dreamt about, it also ensures that internally, people know what the company goals and ambitions are and externally the organisation is reactive to its customer’s requirements. Keeping agile is one of the keys to meeting the increasingly changing demands of the business world.
The organisations strategy needs to be defined at the top and understood throughout the organisation. If a mission statement is used, it is should be clear, concise and understood by everyone in the organisation. The business strategy and IT strategy should be the same document underpinning and enhancing the goals and objectives of the organisation.
Communication channels, official and unofficial need to be fostered and encouraged to promote the corporate aims and objectives. The strategy should define in detail the immediate challenges facing the organisation and become more flexible as the timeframe increases but still retaining focus on the overall goals.
‘IT’ needs to be seen as a facilitator not an inhibitor to the business. ‘IT’ people need to evolve and work to understand the business challenges. Solutions need to be defined and then translated into business terms so that the business clearly understands the cost to benefit ratio.
The non tangible benefits should be written into projects as these are often as important to the success of a project as the ones which can be clearly defined. We often spend a considerable amount of time and energy looking at the cost benefits, the performance benefits, the time benefits and a host of other benefits which fit into nice neat labels or silos but fail to acknowledge the human benefits to your internal and external stakeholders.
Creating a Win / Win model and fostering an inclusive approach to change implementation, will help to ensure that all the stakeholders are fully supportive of any changes required.
Alignment should be seen as a journey, there is always a number of ways to get to the end but with good planning and having a clear focus on the overall goal, you can ensure that the journey takes the most appropriate route.
When planning a journey, look at all of the factors, although a motorway may put more miles on a journey it can often save time and money by being the most efficient route. However, taking the most efficient route may cause you to miss out on something important. Understanding what is appropriate and how to mitigate delays will ensure that you have a rewarding journey rather than a nightmare one.