This is an expanded version of a blog post that first appeared in November.
Recently uncovered fossil records indicate that the tattered cliché of "CIOs must align IT with the business" was first uttered shortly after the discovery of fire. And while that bromide made sense for a few thousand years, it no longer applies here in the early 21st century because today's mandate for CIOs must be to align IT with their *customers*, not just with their business. Because one points to the future, while the other merely reflects the recent past.
Sacrilege, you say? Well, consider this purely hypothetical situation pulled from the ongoing upheaval in the financial markets, where Bank of America is taking over Merrill Lynch. Let's say Bank of America's CEO tells the CIO of the combined unit to "align our newly combined IT with our newly combined business." Further, let's say that CIO does a crackerjack job on that assignment and, 15 months later in early 2010, has succeeded brilliantly in aligning BofA's IT with its business. The problem is that such a mindset assumes that "the business" as it exists here in January 2009 will remain unchanged in a pristine, hermetically sealed steady state for the next 15 months -- untouched by further industry churn, unfazed by new business models triggered by mobile technology, and unmoved by the massive regulatory issues roiling the industry today and for the foreseeable future.
Because, in order to begin the project mandated by the CEO, the CIO must first take a snapshot of the thing (the business) with which IT is to be aligned -- and that means that on Day 2 of the project, the entire organization will be mapping its future against a model of its past. Unless you happen to have stored up a boatload of little cards saying "Get One Change Order FREE!" you're just going to be stuck creating a model that is tied to a somewhat arbitrary point in the past versus creating a dynamic architecture that allows the company to evolve and adapt as rapidly as its customers do.
What's more -- and what's even worse -- is that this archaic model required by the "alignment" type of thinking perpetuates the tired and increasingly wrong-headed structure of IT as an inwardly focused, tactically driven, and insularly reactive cost center. Look around at other departments and functional groups -- are they running around trying to "align" themselves with some detached thing called "the business," or do they consider themselves an indispensable part of that business? Take product designers -- do they create things that customers want to buy, or do they go to the Accounting Department and ask for financial statements for the last six months so they can learn what to design? Do salespeople drive revenue by having meetings with the company's three-year strategic plan, or do they go out in the real world and attempt to create a very tight cash-based linkage between demand and supply? How about Engineering -- are they in charge of taking stuff the company no longer makes and figuring out ways to keep making them forever?