Shoot The Mantra: STOP 'Aligning IT With The Business' - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
Commentary
11/14/2008
05:02 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary
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Shoot The Mantra: STOP 'Aligning IT With The Business'

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 with their business. Because one points to the future, while the other merely reflects the recent past.

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 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 today's 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 November 2008 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. What's more -- and what's even worse -- is that this type of thinking, this model, perpetuates the tired and increasingly wrong-headed structure of IT as an inwardly focused, tactically driven, and insularly reactive cost center.

Instead, the best companies today are shredding and burying forever that corrosive Paleolithic view of IT as internally focused bit-twiddlers who think customers are the internal department heads on the 6-year-old list of managers who get paper copies of monthly server-uptime logs. Shunning such antiquated mindsets, the business-technology leaders in these best-in-class companies are ripping costs out of maintenance sinkholes as rapidly as possible and reapplying those precious dollars to applications and services that are not just "customer-facing" but are indeed "customer-embracing." In so doing, they are connecting intimately with the primary market forces -- their customers! -- that will shape what their business is becoming and needs to be, rather than what it used to be. Companies that can do this, led by the type of thinking we call Tomorrow's CIO, will gain significant competitive advantage by knowing immediately not just when but also *why* customer preferences are shifting; by knowing what types of questions, complaints, and suggestions customers are raising; by establishing a sense of trust via a two-way dialogue predicated on customer preferences rather than company executives' desire to be shielded from those pesky people who are trying to give them money; and by giving the entire organization hugely valuable and ongoing feedback and data points that can be used to refine, expand, or even overhaul business processes, communication, product sets, management structures, and even high-level strategy.

This is a subject to which we'll surely be returning frequently in the months to come because I believe it will become, quite simply, the leading factor in determining success or failure in the world of business technology. Those CIOs who cannot unshackle themselves from the age-old bonds of internally focused thinking and execution will not be able to survive, let alone thrive, in the years ahead, while those that can shake free and lead the interconnected engagement with customers will remake the way business success and business technology are defined for many years to come. So tell me I'm crazy, or tell me how your company's headed down this new path.

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