Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Will IT and Business Ever Be Aligned?

In a recent blog post in IT Business Edge by Michael Vizard, Turning the IT Organization on its Side, Vizard writes, “as more lower level IT processes get automated, it allows the IT organization to spend a lot less time doing basic maintenance work. That in turn should give the IT organization the necessary breathing room it needs to rethink its relationship with the business.”

Wouldn’t that be nice! Unfortunately, that’s not the way it goes with the unrelenting reinvention of what IT is, what applications are, and what we can do with them. You can imagine before most of us were born, back in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when the first assembler programming language was developed and PhD’s no longer had to re-route wiring boards to change the fantastic programs of the day. Maintenance was going to be eliminated!

Then, those PhDs were poring through dumps of ones and zeros. Later, they were lucky to be reading hexadecimal printouts, trying to find that obscure bug that was keeping the new inventory system from running (in homage to Jim Grant, JMSYDFUTP). Soon enough, Grace Hopper and friends invented COBOL. It had Data Statements, Program Statements, and maintenance was going to be eliminated!

Not so fast, stranger.

And so it has gone through the invention of data base systems (the originals seem like tinker-toys to what we use now), rules-based technologies, code generators, script writers, applets, widgets, APIs, SDKs, SaaS and “Das Kloud.”

All of these inventions are far more than helpful. They’re often fundamental and always important. We’re far better off with them than without them. But, none of them eliminate maintenance. They eliminate the need to maintain applications of the old scopes with the old technologies in the old way and they introduce us to far richer business function… and the need to maintain the new function with the new technology in the new way.

Back to "alignment." Later in his post, assuming maintenance to be contained, Vizard writes, “Aligning IT with the business has been the number-one goal of CIOs in every annual survey as far back as anybody can remember. And yet, we never actually seem to get there.” Vizard suggests that the reason is that IT is organized around technologies, and by extension, vendors. With the "lower level functions" automated and without need of maintenance IT can reorient itself and realign. Maybe so but I think that this is but a symptom of a continuing, larger phenomenon than vendor-affinity among IT and business management and ease of maintenance of a given set of applications.

Working on Step 2

Imagine a perfect instance when all IT and all business is aligned by what ever definition of alignment you choose. Allow time to pass and, because of outside business, market and technological forces, that 100% alignment immediately degrades in the face of new possibilities as yet unrealized. If no work is done to keep IT and Business goals and organizations in tune the half-life to a 50% alignment status is 2-3 years at best (the time it takes a moderately active business to produce a substantive set of yet newer key applications, data bases and networks).

Business, IT and vendor/partner management and staff were involved in building the perfectly aligned environment. None of these people are objective. They want to keep their roles and influence and some will slow innovation, creating misalignment.

If the new function is delivered some will maintain that what already existed is still key (as some is). A similar, but not identical set will build the new systems and the two groups, with many individuals in both camps, will be in conflict. Over the next 2-3 years another layer will get laid on and thus it has been since Burroughs was first to deliver virtual storage (look it up).

To use Vizard’s analogy, each layer or generation has, in its own way, “[turned] the IT organization on its side in order to start managing IT according to a set of integrated technologies tied to distinct sets of business processes.” As processes change those efforts seem less and less effective. The challenge for CIOs, and other business executives, is to find ways to keep the subtle business/IT/vendor networks flexible and fluid enough, invested in the current and the future enough, so that the next generation of advances does not pass the company by.

Keeping the organization “fresh” and keeping it aligned are usually the same thing. A good CIO knows that no one likes too much IT turnover but you don’t want a static, unchanging organization either. There will likely be some roles for one-skill staffers, but people who can do and want to do multiple things are valued. Keeping teams together enhances project and program success. Mixing up players and teams keeps things fresh. Everyone deserves a reward for a job well done but the rewards for the most valuable jobs, the jobs that move us forward, must be stronger. People must want to be in those jobs.

My argument is that alignment is a human event. Perfect alignment is unattainable but strong alignment is a requirement. Misaligned IT/business combinations are oriented towards the legacy systems of the past. This orientation makes it difficult to take advantage of the opportunities of today. Well aligned organizations understand the wisdom of Craig Ferguson when he sings “tomorrow's just your future yesterday” and they constantly and programmatically avoid living entirely in their past by overtly influencing the skills, experiences, organizations and actions of the IT/business combinations to lean towards the future.


  1. Sometimes I think that what we need to do is to have two IT organizations -- the Legacy IT Organization that maintains the legacy systems neatly, efficiently, and quietly, and the New IT Organization that is agile, lean, and Aligned to the Business. Both are needed, but combining them may be impossible.

  2. Yes. There's a CIO survey that IBM is now publicizing. They have discovered (its not new, really) that CIOs (read IT organizations) must be both "visionary" and "able pragmatists." The devil's in the balance.