We have all heard the phrase "IT needs to align with the business" but what does it actually mean, and how are businesses achieving it?
Getting the go-ahead
Modelling the processes
Skilling the business-IT divide
Sidebar: The enterprise that plans together...
Shuttling the staff across the city -- from Gosford to Parramatta and into the Sydney CBD -- might have taken them off the job for the day, but it gave them an intimate knowledge of the customer's operations. They met with branch managers and IT technicians, who outlined the company's current IT environment and its business practices, giving the staff a real sense of the interaction between business and IT.
Datacom director Clark Hobson believes the tour was invaluable in aligning staff with the customer's business needs so they can better understand the importance of the contractual service level agreement (SLA) between the two organisations. "The whole point was trying to learn what's underneath the SLA," Hobson explains.
"The SLA has got to mean something, and most people learn things better visually than by reading. To someone on the service desk, by seeing where the IT systems touched the production process, they were able to see that it's less an issue of 'this application is not available' and more an issue of 'that truck cannot leave with its load because it's lacking a material safety sheet.' It creates a bit of empathy as well, since the service desk analyst can actually understand what the [client] is trying to do."
Alignment of business and IT goals has been a catchcry throughout the evolution of IT -- particularly over the past decade, as the proliferation of open systems and massively customisable information systems left many IT organisations spoilt for options that were often tangentially related to actual business needs. Countless consulting firms have built strong businesses based on their ability to help customers align business and IT practices, and many organisations have undertaken clear strategic initiatives in order to stop the fruitless turf wars and finger-pointing that have often characterised business-IT relations.
While the need for alignment is well understood, however, there are indications that the issue still remains a major one at many organisations. A January survey of 1300 CIOs by Gartner Executive Program (EXP) revealed that many of the top CIO priorities for 2005 -- which include business process improvement, a focus on internal controls, enterprise-wide operating costs, supporting competitive advantage, the shortage of business skills, and faster innovation and cycle times -- directly reflect the IT organisation's role in supporting business goals.
When this role is executed well, both the business and IT organisations benefit. At Zurich Financial Services, for example, 12 years spent consolidating once mainframe-based information on a flexible business intelligence platform, built around Information Builders FOCUS and WebFOCUS environments, has revolutionised reporting in an environment where strict regulatory requirements and business demand for information are paramount.
"We have been able to reorganise our information depending on the user's needs," says Peter Barraclough, business analyst within Zurich's IT Management Information Services division, a business unit whose name alone suggests its role in supporting management goals. By delivering tailored reports rather than forcing users to sift through mountains of information, the division has been able to replace voluminous weekly paper reports with electronic versions that help business units access data more quickly and effectively.
Getting to this point has required close alignment of business objectives and IT capabilities -- a need that has seen half the strategists in management information systems brought into IT from the business side. "We have a whole division that focuses on looking through reports to find things out," says Barraclough, one of the people who changed sides.
"Business and the IS organisation align in this organisation very well," he continues. "We meet regularly and determine the initiatives that are available, and which ones are going to see the greatest return. We have substantial business knowledge in our team, and the people that we deal with don't necessarily have any knowledge -- but we do go to a lot of effort to make sure we're talking the same language before we put hand to code."