'Business-IT alignment' is dead... whatever it was

Long the subject of countless articles, blogs, and seminars: Do IT folks "get" the business? How do we achieve "business-IT alignment"?
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Long the subject of countless articles, blogs, and seminars: Do IT folks "get" the business? How do we achieve "business-IT alignment"?

Perhaps its time to put this tired argument to rest. IT folks not only "get" the business, they are the business.

The business of IT is business

A little while back, Ian Thomas picked up on this ZDNet report out of a Gartner IT conference, in which Andy Kyte, vice president and Gartner fellow, observed so succinctly: “None of you are in IT; all of you are in business."

Can you imagine people talking about "aligning" accounting and finance to the business? Or "aligning" the CEO to the business? That would be pretty pathetic, wouldn't it? So why do we constantly fret about "business-IT alignment"?

If we wanted to get creative, we could even have anointed business-IT alignment as an acronym, and really snazz it up -- BITA, anyone? We can even put it into a formula: BITA(x) = ROI(y).  The more you increase BITA, the greater the degree of ROI achieved (still to be determined).

But when it comes to goals and objectives, the vaunted state of business-IT alignment is about as fuzzy a goal as you can get. It's even fuzzier than ROI, and at least ROI often gets actual numbers applied to it.  I've rarely even heard anyone describe what a business with business-IT alignment would actually look and act like. (Perhaps a 100% automated operation?)

Fred Cummins at EDS recently tackled this question, and quotes some other works in the field that suggest "business-IT alignment is dead." For instance, Brian Dooley observed that "the vision of business-IT alignment has been unsuccessfully pursued by the industry since the 1960s.

In a recent article, Bob Evans recommends looking at the matter of IT business value from a new angle, and doing away with the old thinking, which has led many a business down a dead-end path. He quotes business consultant Peter Hinssen, from his book Business/IT Fusion: How To Move Beyond Alignment And Transform IT In Your Organization:

"The IT Governance Institute puts it as follows: 'Alignment is not a destination. Alignment is a journey.' But it's a journey without a destination. That's a horrible predicament ... . Alignment is simply a dead-end street. I believe it is time for a new deal. I believe it is time for a complete overhaul of IT, and a complete rethinking of the relationship between business and IT. I believe it's time for a fusion between the two" because it requires the elimination of the wall separating IT and business around/through/over/under which alignment is supposed to happen.

Such fusion may have been in evidence at many of the dot-coms that sprung up a decade again, and driving the culture of online companies such as Google, eBay, and Amazon. But, of course, the walls are still up at most organizations.

"Collaboration became unmanageable" as IT operations expanded, Fred explains. "The typical solution has been to formalize the relationships with processes and documents. The result is reduced flexibility, limited exchange of ideas and difficulty developing and maintaining a consensus. Agile development methods are an attempt to re-introduce flexibility and collaboration, but agile methods do not scale to large projects-they work for small, multidisciplinary teams."

How to break down these rigid, formal walls? Service orient, Fred says:

"As an approach to design of the business, SOA provides a basis for new relationships between business and IT. These relationships support collaboration in a number of well-defined contexts, so small teams of business and IT people can collaborate to address specific needs of the business. The contextual structure is determined by a shared understanding of the structure of the business and the systems that support it."

In a recent post, I reported on a conversation I had with Miko Matsumura, who talked about how SOA, in its purest form, is capable of breaking down organizations into smaller, more agile teams -- while retaining a common architecture. Fred's observations echo Miko's. As Fred explains, as SOA develops, the design of the enterprise becomes a dynamic, flexible composition of service units -- the fundamental building blocks of SOA.

Here's how IT and business managers fit into the picture:

"The SOA paradigm shift enables IT to take responsibility for optimization of technical resources at an enterprise level, while it enables localized innovation and collaboration in the implementation and automation of service units. Decisions about technology investments as well as other capability improvements can be made from an enterprise perspective, with the understanding of how these capabilities affect the delivery of customer value. IT, represented by the CIO, should become an equal partner in the management of the business with responsibility to develop and enforce standards, support automation and integration, and optimize the utilization of technical resources."

So, rather than merely becoming "aligned" -- with all the vagueness the term suggests -- business becomes the driver of IT, and IT becomes the driver of business. What to call this state of oneness? "Fusion" is the term Hinssen suggested, but that's already taken by a vendor. Perhaps a "tight coupling" between the business and IT? (How's that for adding to the confusion ?)  But perhaps the time has come to stop talking about "alignment" as if the business and IT were separate organizations. They are one.

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