Some thoughts on IT-Business Alignment from the Chase Zander IT Director Forum

This Chase Zander seminar, which I earlier previewed on this site, took place yesterday evening in Birmingham. There was a full house of 20 plus IT Directors, CIOs and other senior IT managers who all engaged fully in some very stimulating and lively discussions.

As I previously mentioned, our intention in this meeting was to encourage debate and sharing of experiences and best practice between the delegates. My role was to faciliate the first session, focussed on IT-Business alignment. I started by sharing a few slides with that group that explained the research we had conducted to determine the content of the forum.

Click to view the introductory presentation
Click to view the introductory presentation as a PDF

After sharing what in my opinion was a not wholly satisfactory definition of IT-Business alignment, I opened up the floor to a discussion of what IT-Business alignment actually was and why it mattered. We used some of the other slides later in the meeting, but most of the rest of the evening was devoted to interaction between the delegates. Indeed the ensuing conversations were so wide ranging that the theme was also carried over to the second session, hosted by my associate Elliot Limb.

Territory initially covered included the suggestion that IT should be an integral part of the business, rather than a separate entity aligned to it (a theme that I covered in my earlier article Business is from Mars and IT is from Venus, which interestingly I penned after a previous Chase Zander forum, this one focussed on change management). The group also made a strong connection between IT-Business alignment and trust. A count of hands in response to the question “do you feel that you have the 100% unqualified confidence of your CEO?” revealed a mixed response and we tried to learn from the experiences of those who responded positively.

The relationship between IT and change was also debated. Some felt that IT, with its experience of project-based work, was ideally placed to drive change in organisations. Others believed that change should be a business function, with IT sticking to its more traditional role. Different organisations were in different places with respect to this issue – one attendee had indeed seen his current organisation take both approaches in the recent past. It was also agreed that there were different types of change: positive change in reaction to some threat or opportunity and the less positive change for change’s sake that can sometimes affect organisations.

Suggestions for enhancing IT-Business alignment included: being very transparent about IT service level agreements and trends in them; focussing more on relationships with senior managers, the CEO and CFO in particular; better calculating the cost of IT activities (including business resource) and using this to prioritise and even directly charge for IT services; applying marketing techniques to IT; learning to better manage business expectations, taking on more realistic workloads and knowing when to say ‘no’; and paying more attention to business processes, particularly via capability maturity modelling.

It was agreed that it generally took quite some time to establish trust between a CIO and the rest of the senior management team. This might be done by initially sorting out problems on the delivery and support side and, only once confidence had been built up, would the CIO be able to focus more on strategic and high value-added activities. This process was not always aided by the not atypical 3-5 year tenure of CIOs.

Later discussions also touched on whether CIOs would generally expect (or want to) become CEOs and, if not, why was this the case. The perspective of both the delegates and the Chase Zander staff was very interesting on this point. There was a degree of consensus formed around the statement that IT people liked taking on challenging problems, sorting them out and then moving on to the next one. While there was some overlap between this perspective and the role of a CEO in both having their hand on the tiller of an organisation and challenging the management team to meet stretch goals, there was less than a perfect fit. Maybe this factor indicated something of a different mindset in many IT professionals.

In the context of forming better relationships with business managers and IT trying to be less transactional in its dealings with other areas, the question of why there were so few women in senior IT positions also came up. This is a large topic that could spawn an entire forum in its own right.

Overall the meeting was judged to be a success. From my perspective it was also interesting to meet a good cross-section of IT professionals working in different industries and to talk about both what the different challenges that we faced and what we had in common.

Continue reading about this area in: The scope of IT’s responsibility when businesses go bad

Business Intelligence and Transparency


“There is nowhere to hide”

This is something I have heard from a number of business people when they have begun to appreciate both the power of well-designed business intelligence (BI) and, more importantly, the way that it lays bare what is happening in different parts of an organisation. There is a dawning realisation that not only can they get at the numbers that they need to run their business, so can their colleague in the next office, or their counterpart in another country. So can their manager and their manager’s manager.

Of course it might be thought that there is a negative connotation to the “nowhere to hide” phrase. However, my experience has been that instead business people warm to the even playing field that good BI delivers. What happens is that people begin to focus on relative performance, rather than just absolute performance.

Maybe before the advent of BI, a manager might be content that he or she was meeting their targets. Now they can see that while they are meeting their targets, so are all of their colleagues, against whose performance they will be assessed. As well as meeting their targets, some of the manager’s colleagues are comfortably exceeding them; perhaps the manager ranks only 8 out of 10 peers. What is crucial here is that they can see how they are placed early enough to do something about it; to catch up with their colleagues that have moved ahead. The upshot of this healthy competition is that overall performance increases.

The transparency that is a major attribute of BI can provide the impetus to raise business performance from the adequate to the outstanding. As well as maybe providing an incentive to the underperforming, it is a clear way for the best performers to demonstrate what they have achieved and for benchmarks to be set for the rest of the organisation.

When there is nowhere to hide, then rewards and remuneration can be more clearly aligned with performance and the workplace becomes a clearer, rules-based place to operate; one where good work is more easily recognised and decisions are based on facts. This cultural transformation is an excellent outcome for both the organisation and its employees.

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