Business needs to align itself with IT

The 'IT needs to be aligned with business' adage has things backwards, says Johna Till Johnson

How many times have you heard that IT needs to be aligned with business? If there was a mantra of the past decade, surely this was it. And who can argue with the concept that IT and business need to be in alignment to ensure that IT investments pay off in the form of tangible business benefits?

There’s just one catch. It’s wrong. More precisely, the adage has things exactly backwards. Although it’s true that IT and business need to be in alignment, it’s not IT’s job to adapt itself to business requirements. On the contrary, any savvy business executive needs to start from the operating premise, “How can my organisation leverage IT as a competitive advantage?”.

That probably sounds like heresy. But consider: when was the last time you heard “Sales must be aligned with business?” or “Manufacturing must be aligned with business?” It’s taken for granted that the proper relationship is that business strategy dictates how capabilities such as manufacturing and sales are deployed.

It’s not sales’ job to align with business, in other words — it’s the business’ job to put in place a sales structure (including people, processes, compensation and technology) that yields results in line with business goals.

Why would IT be any different? Frankly, because for far too long business executives have viewed IT as a necessary evil — a function somewhere between power and plumbing that’s required in order to do business, but nothing that’s seriously strategic.

That attitude is fundamentally broken. Anyone who’s starting a company in 2007 and beyond is going to ask, as a basic operating premise, “How can we use technology to deliver products better, faster, more cheaply and more in line with our customers’ needs?”

Why doesn’t this happen at most organisations? For starters, it’s because IT is complex and intimidating to non-techie business folk. But that’s an excuse, not a good reason — legal and finance departments are just as complex, and yet they’re often considered strategic. Another reason is that, frankly, engineering has a negative connotation in our culture.

Pop quiz: In movies or on TV, who usually gets the cute girl (or guy) — the pocket-protector-wearing Dilbert, or the former jock or cheerleader? (Never mind that in real life uber-geeks Bill Gates and Larry Ellison get the girls, the mansion, and the accolades — we’re talking popular perceptions here).

How can you tell if IT is considered strategic at your organisation? For starters, check to see if your CIO is on the board — that’s a positive sign. Most often, having the CIO report to the CFO is not good news (a few CFOs can be visionary strategists, but many live up to their reputations as bean-counters). When corporate results are announced, are IT projects praised? And how well are IT executives paid compared with senior executives in sales, marketing and finance?

If IT isn’t getting the high profile it should be in your organisation, it’s time to ask yourself what you can do about it.

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