In a recent article written about aligning IT with the
business
, a reader provided some great comments that deserved a follow-up
article.

First, Rob_Pro’s
feedback and comments:

“Mr. Sisco, you write some great articles and obviously
have a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw from. So, I have a bit of a
challenge for you, and all members of the community. These are similar to what
I often hear at my current company:

  • “The
    IT Department is out of sync with our company’s needs.”
  • “Our
    IT department is not responsive.”
  • “We
    don’t understand why we are spending so much in IT.”

“While this is common at many companies, what I have yet to
see are any articles on how to resolve these issues from the other direction.
The advice given is usually to align the IT plan to the business plan, or
something similar. Here are a few questions I would like insight on:

  1. What
    happens if your company doesn’t have a business plan?
  2. What
    happens when there are no strategic goals for you to try and align your
    support efforts with?
  3. What
    happens when you sit down with the business unit managers and they claim
    they are getting all the support they need from IT, but tell a very
    different story to the CIO?
  4. What
    do you do when the business units don’t know what their needs are?
  5. What
    are some strategies you can use to convince the CEO that you are a
    support department and need a direction to align yourself to?
  6. What strategies can you use to persuade the business
    units to develop the business case for adding technology so you can show that
    IT is contributing to their success and the success of the company?

“Almost every article I have read lately puts the task of
correcting any misalignment squarely on the shoulders of IT management. What
happens when the problem isn’t necessarily the IT department? Here is the
challenge: How do you address the alignment issue from the other direction?

From: Rob_Pro

Question and answer

Excellent set of questions and insight that I’m sure many
have interest in. Rob_Pro certainly captured my attention with the questions
posed. Before we start, let’s first discuss the issue in general, in order to
set a framework on which to answer Rob_Pro’s questions.

Every company is unique. Some do a much better job of
developing business strategy and defining plans on how they expect to achieve
their goals and objectives. If you sit down with most CEOs and CFOs and ask
them “what can we do in technology to help the company,” you may not
get very much feedback. The reason is that they just don’t know how to look at
business issues and automatically translate them into opportunities that can be
gained by using technology. That’s where we as IT managers, CIOs, and CTOs come
in.

When a company does not have a formal business strategy for
you to “align” IT with, it
doesn’t make it any less your responsibility to identify IT initiatives and
projects that will provide real value to the business. If you ask questions
that help you better understand the business, its challenges and issues, and
gain endorsement of technology solutions that address those issues, you’ll be
taking steps that will keep your efforts in sync with company needs.

“What happens if your company doesn’t have a business plan?”

If there’s no formal business plan, interview senior
managers and department heads to learn about their operation, issues, and
challenges. Aligning IT with the business is not necessarily adapting your IT
initiatives plan to a formal company business plan. It’s about doing things in
IT that support business needs. That may be improving support responsiveness
and follow-up to improve client satisfaction and productivity of your
technology users, or it may mean implementing a major new technology to address
a specific challenge in the company.

You will be able to help the business succeed by
understanding the overall goals of the company—interview managers and learn
what they need to get their job done effectively.

“What happens when there are no strategic goals for you to try and align
your support efforts with?”

The important thing to realize with all of these questions
is that we can’t simply look for a specific “target,” which the
business has clearly defined for us, to align our technology initiatives
around. The key issue is to ask questions that allow the company manager to
discuss the business. You can learn what makes it successful or not, the
challenges it faces, and the issues that prevent it from being more successful.

As you understand these issues, you can start translating
business issues into technology “opportunities” that can make a
difference for a department manager or senior manager of the company. If you
then target specific technology initiatives that are cost effective and that
address issues or challenges that will truly help the business component become
more successful, and then gain approval by the “stakeholders,” you
will be aligning your efforts closely with the business need.

It’s more a matter of learning about your company’s business
needs, validating you are “on target”, and gaining approval on
recommendations rather than implementing an IT strategy that “you
think” is what the company needs.

“What happens when you sit down with the business unit managers and
they claim they are getting all the support they need from IT, but tell a very
different story to the CIO?”

If there is a disconnect with what your department managers
are telling you versus those you report to, it’s usually due to one of several
things:

  • They don’t
    want to hurt your feelings.
  • They
    are concerned that their support will decrease even further.
  • They don’t
    want to confront you with their concerns.
  • You
    are not hearing what they are saying.

If a disconnect occurs, I try to sit down with the
department head and open up the discussion with, “I need your help.”
Asking for help in understanding the nature of client service issues can often
get you the insight you need. To do this, you should be reassuring, be very
open to constructive criticism, and listen objectively. Getting defensive will
only exacerbate the problem.

When you hear their story, quantify the specific issues and
gain agreement that you have identified the areas of improvement needed. Once
you have specifics, you can attack the problem or go about the task of
resetting their expectations as appropriate.

“What do you do when the business units don’t know what their needs
are?”

Most business department managers have difficulty telling
you exactly what their technology needs are. I’ve never been able to simply ask
a department manager “what do you need from the IT department” and
get the answer I need. It would be nice, but it is just not that
straightforward.

Their core competency is in operating the business component
they have responsibility for, not technology. That’s why effective IT managers
and CIOs have an ability to ask general questions about the business and to
drill deeper in finding opportunities by which IT can help the department be
more successful as they learn more about the department’s business and
challenges.

Once you have an idea, you can articulate your suggestions
to the department head to gain his or her understanding and concurrence.

“What are some strategies you can use to convince the CEO that you are
a support department and need a direction to align yourself to?”

As a CIO, I may have to help the CEO “carve out” a
direction for the company or at least instigate enough conversation to help me
understand what we are trying to accomplish as a company. If the company is in
a transitional state, it may be very difficult to even know what the specific
objectives are.

The conversations may lead me to department managers where
the real help is actually needed. Part of our job is to take general concepts
and sometimes partial information and to develop a plan that makes sense in
supporting the business.

Example

In one company, my general insight from the senior
management team was that we needed IT to be prepared to support the acquisition
of other companies.

To do that meant I needed to improve the level of our
internal client’s satisfaction with IT, move one of my technology offices to
another city, improve the capabilities of our business applications,
standardize IT services on the network, and to eliminate the external clients
we had. My CEO and President didn’t spell that out for me.

I looked at what we had, what we were going to need to
support a business ten times the size we were at the time, and came up with my
own conclusions, as the new CIO. However, before starting to implement any of
these initiatives, I sat down with the senior management team to discuss my
proposal, the reasons, the benefits, and to gain their insight and endorsement.
As you might expect, the initial strategy was modified somewhat to better meet
the needs of our company.

Because I approached the issues in this manner, my CEO and senior
management team were not surprised by our IT actions and fully understood what
the technology team was trying to accomplish to support the business.

“What strategies can you use to persuade the business units to develop
the business case for adding technology so you can show that IT is contributing
to their success and the success of the company?”

I don’t necessarily try to persuade business units to add
technology. It’s always easier to “facilitate” developing a needs
requirement than to push the department toward my technology proposal.

What this means is that, by asking questions about the
business’s needs and challenges, I will help the department manager arrive at
the technology solution himself, even if I get to the answer much quicker. When
the “business owner” drives the need, it’s often more effective and
easier to get the funding, plus you then have a real business partner working
with you to make the project a success.

As soon as we agree on an “opportunity,” I will
work closely with the department manager to develop a business case for senior
management approval, and later I will want him or her involved in developing
the project to ensure it will be successful.

This approach builds “IT partners” and makes for
healthy relationships. After all, my success as an IT manager lies in my
ability to help others be successful in the company.

Summary

Aligning IT with the business requires you to learn about
the business, validating the specific needs and challenges you are identifying,
proposing technology initiatives that will help the business, and gaining full
approval and commitment of the operational managers of the company in funding
and implementing these initiatives.

The idea of taking a company strategy document and building
your IT alignment strategy around it is a misleading concept. Our role as IT
manager is to seek out what our client’s business needs are and to interpret
those needs into prudent IT initiatives that support the business.