Stop Chasing Alignment and Start Being of Value

There are still no end of thoughts being generated about how to achieve alignment between IT and the business.

Frankly, it astounds me that this question still needs to be asked! — for alignment ought to have been achieved a long time ago (if it were possible at all).

The challenge of alignment has been around since at least the 1980s, and the debate about it is still in full swing in the 2010s. (Moreover, recent CEO and CFO level survey data strongly concludes that CIOs are in question as executives, and in large measure this is the the flip side of the perennial obsession with alignment busy destroying careers.)

Chimeras can’t be achieved: Alignment is in many ways a chimera.

It is not achieved by organizing in a particular way, co-locating resources “just so”, or any of the other moves normally made over the past twenty years to improve “alignment with the business”.

What’s more important is that for all the organizations acting in this way, they are treating alignment as a “thing”: get everything lined up properly, and alignment will be maintained. This is not possible.

Businesses are collections of villages: human beings take large organizations apart into smaller entities and their primary work allegiance is to one of these (e.g. “their department”). This is such an anthropological and psychological truth that it is fair to say that the likelihood of a management practice, software tool or organizational design overcoming it is so near zero as to be (for all practical purposes) impossible.

However, members of the villages can and do learn to carry out an on-going “dance” with each other. Organizations that act more aligned are simply those where there’s more interactions taking place.

One management technique that does help is to get the governance model right. The Governing Board approach has the staying power to keep the business leaders at the same table as the CIO collectively setting priorities for the technologies that support the business. But it’s not enough on its own: IT as a whole must be seen to be part of the business.

So am I saying “Dismantle IT and Scatter it Around”?

No, that doesn’t work, either: it’s the common outcome we see in outsourcing deal after outsourcing deal, and, frankly, it doesn’t improve anything.

People also have a loyalty to their skill base, or profession, as much as they do to their sub-organizational unit. An IT person hanging off the side of, say, an engineer-dominated product group gains no respect: “no iron ring and no background in the type of engineering we do? You’re just not one of us.”

Suggesting that IT people in finance should hold CA/CGA/CPA/CMA designations, that IT people in product groups should hold P.Eng. designations, etc. only marginally helps with this “you’re a white monkey in a cage of brown monkeys” problem” (the brown monkeys tear the white monkey to bits if allowed).

Not only that, but employees of value must have paths open to them: this sort of distribution of IT skills fails to provide that.

There are cases where IT has been successfully dismantled, to be sure: analysis and design to P&L managers; infrastructure, development and maintenance to sourcing partners; a small “Office of the CIO” for policy matters.

Maintaining an effective set of business unit or functional IT teams, however, is no easy task: it looks good on paper, but breaks down when the people involved are considered. It does “solve” the alignment issue for a while, though, but only for a year or two.

IT as a department (central or local) has to act appropriately. When all anyone hears from IT is “we can’t do that”, “it’s not allowed”, “it’ll take a year”, and “oh, that’s going to cost you”, there is likewise no respect — and alignment requires mutual respect.

This is why we observe that even CIOs who “get alignment” are often undercut by their own IT organization, who destroy the CIO’s credibility with just such messages.

Allan Holender, author of Zentrepreneurism, talks often about the need to speak your truth at work. What he means by that is that part of mutual respect is that you are honest, neither using “how complicated that will be” to grab power nor underplaying how complicated something will be.

IT has often wavered between two poles, neither of which offer that mutual respect: either IT is laying down policy, taking a hard line on user-led innovation, or reining in the pace of change, or it is bent over backward, saying “yes” to every fiddling little request from everyone who wants something.

Real mutual respect begins when you act to humbly serve — but are willing to say “no” when it matters.

So here’s the truth about alignment. Think “where’s my value” instead.

Unlike in the past, today Software as a Service (SaaS), the package market and sourcing partners to source business processes, general knowledge levels about consumer technologies (which are multiple generations ahead of what’s in use in business, most of the time) and the ease of collaboration done externally means that the rest of the business can get everything they need done without ever coming to IT.

It may not be optimal, and it may not work well, and it probably will cost more, but they can get everything they need if they want to.

What holds them back today are two factors: the CIO still owns the technology budget, more or less (they’d rather spend the CIO’s money than their own), and the “real” executives — the CEO and CFO — are still willing to push them toward the CIO rather than just say “go ahead”.

But this is breaking down. In many organizations it is as likely that the CIO will not be replaced as that he or she will lead the way to a real seat at the centre of the firm’s control. In other words, the rubber is now meeting the road.

CIO Action Plan to Replace “Alignment”

  • IT is a service business. Operate it like one, especially as one that has lots of competitors.
  • Remove as many obstacles as you can. Save “no” for things that matter in business terms, not for the little things that make IT’s life easier.
  • Get IT out there really understanding its customer, as opposed to understanding its customer’s technology, and processes as modelled and mapped.
  • Offer services that add value; source those that are a distraction.
  • Stop talking about alignment. You’re just making excuses when you do.
  • If you’re not turning out “people people”, people managers and leaders galore, you’re not going to get to mutual respect.

About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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