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Summary: 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?

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TOPICS: CXO
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Contents
Introduction
Getting the go-ahead
Modelling the processes
Skilling the business-IT divide
Sidebar: The enterprise that plans together...

Getting the go-ahead
Different organisations have found different ways to align their IT and business efforts, but analysing the experiences of a number of well-aligned organisations reveal some common threads.

One of the biggest indicators of IT-business alignment is the traditional source of impetus for projects involving IT. In the past, many IT projects were developed by the IT team in response to a broad mandate from the business organisation, which would often find that the end project was woefully unsuited to the actual business needs driving the project.

US firm the Standish Group, whose CHAOS report tracks the rate of project failures, last year reported that 15 percent of all IT projects were still judged failures, and an additional 51 percent of projects ended up over time, over budget, and/or lacking critical features and requirements. This translated into an estimated AU$70.8 billion in project waste -- equal to nearly 22 percent of the total AU$328.2 billion spent on the studied projects.

In some cases, these failures are IT's fault -- techs will be techs, after all, and it can be hard for many technology specialists to see the proverbial forest for the trees. In many other instances, however, business organisations shared the blame for failing to follow through on projects and leaving the delivery up to the IT organisation.

The recent trend towards smaller, shorter, more modular IT projects has addressed this problem to some extent, since it's harder for things to go completely off the rails over the course of a three-month project than it would be if IT were left to its own devices for 12 to 18 months as in the past. Even with the advantage of smaller scale, however, IT remains intrinsically complex -- and past failures have made many business organisations sceptical of IT even when blame should rightfully be shared all around.

Transforming IT from whipping-boy into strategic partner has taken a concerted effort, but many organisations have successfully changed the dynamics so that business units have shouldered their share of the responsibility. At Melbourne's Deakin University, for example, the 183-strong IT Services division has focused on centralising its information systems and delivering its capabilities through a closely monitored services model.

"When you're aligning business and IT, it always seems to be IT that does everything," says Simon Plant, Service Planning & Development group manager at Deakin University. "It should be a two-way street, not just business dumping their needs on IT and saying 'just do it'. At the end of the day, it's not about satisfying ourselves, but about recognising that we are part of the same university and need to find ways of compromising."

The solution has been straightforward: ITS mandates the core technology -- it's Oracle on Linux all the way -- but business units retain their role as "custodial owners" of the systems. Twice-yearly meetings between ITS representatives and Deakin's 30-plus business areas allow common sharing of strategic directions, the IT implications of those strategies, and the long-term goals each unit is pursuing. With those plans in hand, ITS uses Mercury Interactive load testing tools to ensure that its services and performance continue to grow with business demand.

"It's been a fantastic outcome from the point of view of having the opportunity to look at their strategic and business plans," says Plant. "Ultimately, the more information you share, the better outcome you're going to get. Just having facts and data at your disposal is brilliant because it stops the subjective finger-pointing."

"Adversarial" isn't necessary a word that has to enter into discussions about business-IT alignment, however: in many organisations, recognition of IT's past success at a business level can be quite useful in letting it deliver on technology's promise of innovation. Harvey World Travel (HWT), for one, has so far converted more than 160 franchised sites across Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK from a slow client/server structure to a centralised thin-client environment based on Wyse Blazer thin-client terminals.

Franchisees are enraptured with the speed and features of the new environment, which has been codenamed "Hydra" and includes an upgraded version of the core Galileo booking system. The thin-client system particularly suits HWT's many part-time and home-working staff who can access it from home. And, client satisfaction being one of HWT's core business goals, the project has been an unqualified success -- but it was IT's idea from start to finish, says group IT manager Matthew Harris.

"We sold a concept that was nothing but thin air," says Harris. "We have a very good relationship between the business, the board, and the IT department, and the reason we have that is that IT has a history of delivering on what we say we're going to deliver on."

Progressing from concept to solid deliverable took HWT's IT organisation six months, during which time it worked hard to coordinate suppliers including Pacific Internet, Acer, HighPoint, and Galileo. There was certainly risk involved -- Galileo, for one, had never been installed in a thin-client environment, and a "bending backwards" Acer delivered to the project i-Track, a Web-based project management system that Harris says was integral to the project's success.

"We had the challenge of getting different stakeholders working together smoothly," he explains. "Developing the system wasn't that expensive, and the vendors went out of their comfort zones to make it work. The big leap of faith was that we had to put everything else on hold for six months while we developed this. If we hadn't had the good successful track record, it would have been hard to get that [management] trust."

Topic: CXO

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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