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IT, business alignment not a pipe dream

An annual survey finds -- yet again -- that CIOs don't think IT is in step with business units.

The relationship between IT and business units remains a top concern of midmarket CIOs, a trend that has held steady for the better part of a decade.

That's the word from the Society for Information Management's annual IT management survey, which polled 300 senior IT leaders.

IT managers answering the survey have made IT and business alignment their No. 1 or No. 2 concern every year since 2003. Other perennial contenders for the top spot include attracting and retaining IT professionals and building business skills within IT.

But the pesky issue of alignment won't go away. Somehow, in the mind of CIOs, IT and business units just can't seem to get on the same page.

"It's something you have to work at," said Jerry Luftman, professor and associate dean at Stevens Institute of Technology, sounding not unlike a marriage counselor. "It doesn't just happen because you say 'We are aligned.'"

Luftman, author of the survey, said he thinks alignment isn't happening because everyone -- analysts, consultants, academics -- is too busy redefining the term and not focusing on step-by-step forward movement.

"Everybody is saying 'Alignment is dead.' It is now convergence or it's integration or it's linkage or in harmony or whatever word they come up with," Luftman said. "We know what the thing is, I think. Now let's work on how we can best address it."

How we can best address it comes down to six key steps, according to Luftman:

  1. Maintain effective communication among IT and business organizations.
  2. Enact an effective IT governance process of strategic and tactical operations.
  3. Demonstrate the value (in real measurements) of IT to the business.
  4. Ensure that IT and business units work together as partners.
  5. Set up an effective IT infrastructure and architecture, as well as applications that go out and beyond the company.
  6. Place the right people inside IT who will work toward alignment.

All of this, executed properly, would go to tear down one major barrier to true IT/business alignment -- the oft-echoed complaint that IT is seen as or plays the role of a subservient little brother to the rest of the company.

Larry Bonfante, CIO of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), has spent his six years at the organization building a two-way street -- patrolled by IT workers -- between IT and the business units.

Bonfante said he designates staff members into a "client relationship management" role. Those people serve as a sort of ambassador, working within each business unit to build a relationship with IT.

"They, day in and day out, are really more a part of the business unit than anything else," Bonfante said. "It's somebody who can straddle both lines. They understand the business well enough to speak to the business people and they understand IT well enough to speak to the technologists."

Bonfante also has forgone the idea of an "IT project," instead asking business units to run projects and offering IT staff as support. That forces business units to choose projects that will really be productive for the business and keeps IT from running projects for the sake of running them.

"They sponsor the projects," he said. "They own the projects."

That means the business units request funding approval for cash that IT then uses to support the projects.

"[Previously] it was kind of first come, first serve. So whoever came through and took the money, they could be doing it for no purpose. But once the money's gone, it's gone," Bonfante said.

It's really about relationship management.
Larry BonfanteUnited States Tennis Association

The IT department at USTA also looks for constant input from the business units -- whether that be through twice-annual "IT scorecards," monthly meetings with business unit staff, "lunch and learns" to explain new technology or in-house "trade shows" to show off the latest technologies and projects the IT staff is developing.

Bonfante said he also has personal, near-constant dialogue with his colleagues on the executive team.

"It's really about relationship management," he said. "I spend an enormous amount of my time working directly with the business leaders so I know what makes them tick."

All that almost makes IT part of the business unit, instead of a group of cave-dwelling fix-it people who can be called on to remedy problems and fulfill demands as they occur.

"People still consider alignment as how you align IT with the business as opposed to how you align IT and the business," Luftman said. "We've got to make sure that IT people really need to take charge in helping their business partners understand the complexities and difficulties [of IT]."

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