IT-Business Alignment: Enough Already - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
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9/18/2014
09:06 AM
Charles Araujo
Charles Araujo
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IT-Business Alignment: Enough Already

Achieving business outcomes depends on fostering a new level of cross-departmental intimacy, not alignment.

I sat on the couch, looking across at the therapist. My partner was regaling her with all of the things that I was doing or not doing that were throwing our relationship into disarray. My partner finished with those devastating words: "I think it may be time for us to go our separate ways."

I was shocked, in a state of complete disbelief. How could this have happened? I had been trying so hard.

So I turned to my partner and said: "I think you're being completely unfair. You know how hard I've been trying. I've been working so hard to align my IT with your business. Hasn't that been enough for you?"

IT-business alignment.

I hope I never again hear another IT executive or industry pundit utter that term, the most insidious one ever concocted in the world of IT. The term is wrong on so many levels. It implies that IT and "the business" are somehow separate. It projects an image of two independent entities, each doing its own thing but trying to "stay aligned." Like two people racing down the freeway in traffic at 100 mph but trying to keep their cars touching. You can see that it isn't going to end well.

[If perception is reality, you'd better start worrying. What The Business Really Thinks Of IT: 3 Hard Truths.]

While I hate this term for all of those reasons, I also understand that it's borne of good intentions. It has been IT leaders' clumsy attempt to communicate that we want to understand more fully what's going on in "the business" and to ensure that we're not operating in a vacuum.

Although this intention was right, the approach pre-supposed that we simply needed to ask our business colleagues what they want so we could align our strategies to their desires and plans. But there are two problems with this approach.

First, it assumes that it's as simple as asking the question and getting an answer. But just as it is in a real-life therapist session, we don't always know what's bothering us or why what was perfectly fine yesterday now drives us crazy about our partner. Relationships are complex and constantly changing. Believing that the reason for a big gap is that you simply haven't asked your partner what he or she wants is naive (although you should be doing that as well).

The bigger problem is more complex. For any true relationship to thrive, it demands something that most people will shudder at in a business context.

Intimacy.

In our personal and business relationships, we desire those shared experiences, the comfort of understanding each other's needs and habits, and the security of an abiding trust in each other.

This is where the concept of "IT-business alignment" falls short. It attempts to replace the intimacy that we crave with the poor substitute of requirements, service-level agreements, and alignment workshops.

There's nothing inherently wrong with those things, but they don't engender the kind of trusting relationships that most IT executives say they want -- and almost every business executive now demands. 

The missing ingredient
There's only way to create true intimacy: mutual vulnerability. You must be willing to engage on a deeper level than just "tell me what you want and I'll give it to you the best way I can."

Mutual vulnerability requires that you say: "We're in this together, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help you realize what you want and need." It means putting your fate into the hands of your partners and accepting the responsibility of their fate in return.

This kind of vulnerability is scary. It's why most organizations and their leaders aren't willing to go there. It's much safer to retain control. But without intimacy,

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Charles Araujo, Founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute, is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT Is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized ... View Full Bio
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cbaxter809
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cbaxter809,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/24/2014 | 5:56:30 PM
Outstanding Perspective
Outstanding perspective Charlie!  I love the concept of "mutual vulnerability" and your illustration of the importance of intimacy in consistent and sustainable success.  I like to call it "emotional skin-in-the-game" believing that optimal achievement only occurs when everyone on a team has an emotional connection with everyone else, and all parties have skin-in-the-game with regard to desired outcomes.  Excellent article!
pfretty
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pfretty,
User Rank: Ninja
9/24/2014 | 10:54:36 AM
Love it!
The whole alignment issue has always bothered me as well. However, it's true that there are business and more specifically data silos that create huge issues where different departments fail to engage with one another fully. When it's data related, it is a real waste since it often results in business units making decisions on incomplete data, which as you know only compromises the quality of the outcome.  According to a recent SAS survey, only 5 percent say their organizations are extremely capable at disseminating insights across the organization. It's time to break down walls and start acting like a single business rather than subsets. 

 

Peter Fretty
luftman
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luftman,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/20/2014 | 5:05:28 AM
Re: Excellent Metaphor
While your overall message is constructive, your comments on the use of the term "alignment" are not.  Hence, let's focus on the things that IT and business can do to better leverage IT to obtain demonstrable value. 

I would be remiss if I did not point out that for years we have been saying that it is NOT aligning IT WITH the business; it is aligning IT AND the business; which is what is implied in your message. Whether it is called aligned, fused, integrated, harmonized, fit, or whatever, let's not debate the name. Let's focus on what needs to be done, and what has been done by exemplar organizations. Last, we do discuss aligning other organization AND the business all of the time.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
9/18/2014 | 1:06:56 PM
Excellent Metaphor
Great perspective, Charlie. This line's a keeper: "Like two people racing down the freeway in traffic at 100 mph but trying to keep their cars touching. You can see that it isn't going to end well." Alignment will never work, because what's being aligned is always changing -- and changing faster than ever. I like the intimacy approach. Teams imply like interests. Alignment implies trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. 
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