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Challenges, benefits emerge when aligning business and IT

Aligning business and IT strategies is imperative to digital business success, but there are definitely obstacles companies face when doing so, according to Ray Toler, vice president of IT and marketing at heat transfer technology company HTRI. In this SearchCIO video interview filmed at the Gartner Symposium in Orlando, Fla., Toler explained why success has posed the biggest roadblock in HTRI's digital transformation journey, and outlined the steps to overcome the hurdle. He also explained why in a smaller organization like HTRI, "keeping-the-lights-on" functions often end up getting more attention than innovation spending.

Editor's note: The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Have you experienced any roadblocks in aligning business and IT strategies?

Ray Toler: The biggest hurdle I found is, ironically, success. We've been successful for a long time and it's been a slow and steady improvement over time. There's a somewhat pervasive attitude of, "If it's not broken, why fix it?" Things like machine intelligence, internet of things and all of these forces are coming in, but it's sometimes very difficult to see why you should do something differently. In the particular industry we're in, conservative, slow, steady growth is the way to go. That's been the biggest roadblock that I've had.

It's also difficult to convince people with advanced degrees that they could be replaced by a machine in 10 years. They don't believe it, they haven't seen it. These are typically "show me" people and I think it'll take a big disruptor to come into our space before they kind of wake up and say, "Oh, it's time to go."

To try to address the issue, I've brought in people to talk about it. I've shared videos. We'll get there. It's that conversation and bringing in experts and saying that this isn't just a hype, that this is happening and here are other places where it has happened.

What are the challenges and opportunities of aligning business and IT?

Toler: I will say the challenges and the opportunities of aligning business and IT are linked and that the business has to understand what IT is capable of, what technology is capable of, and be able to see the opportunities that exist that may not have existed even two years ago.

IT is part of the enterprise; it's part of the business process and it should be helping to drive -- if not driving -- a lot of new business and revenue generation.

The challenge for IT is to understand the business. It's critical that we understand what the business is trying to do and why because the why is more important than the what and how. If you get to the why, the what and how are pretty easy to figure out. If you just start with the what and how and jump into a plan, it will fail. It's that communication between IT and the rest of the enterprise and really to stop thinking of IT as a separate entity from the enterprise. IT is part of the enterprise; it's part of the business process and it should be helping to drive -- if not driving -- a lot of new business and revenue generation.

How do you balance driving efficiency and "keep-the-lights-on" functions with innovations?

Toler: We're a smaller organization. I have a very small team and that has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, we're very nimble. We can try new technologies very quickly, we can bring things in, fail fast. The downside of that is we are resource-restricted. A larger percentage of our time is spent on the "keep-the-lights-on" and efficiency stuff and not so much on the innovation side of things. In a bimodal sense, we have a lot harder time with Mode 2 than Mode 1, because Mode 1 is critical. We have to keep the lights on; we have to keep doing more with less. We will try things, but we are much more cautious about what we take to the rest of the enterprise because once we get to that point, it takes up a lot more of our time. The balancing act is a little bit tricky for us because of our size.

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