What true IT-business alignment should look like

For some companies, IT and business are one in the same -- employees and managers even swap roles in and out of IT-related positions.

"Business-IT alignment" is one of those phrases that comes up incessantly at conferences, in analyst notes, and in trade articles.  A great goal to shoot for, but what does the end goal look like?

Julia King, writing in ComputerWorld, provides an interesting snapshot of businesses that seem to have achieved alignment. That is, IT and the business aren't just aligned, they've become one in the same:

"Forget IT-business alignment. [There is] a small number of companies where business and IT are virtually indistinguishable... IT and the business are not so interested in aligning but rather are fully engaged in converging on an enterprise vision or goal that hovers above every department and project plan and is crystal clear to each and every employee."

Consider these examples cited by King:

Zappos.com: Behind the scenes at this online shoe retailer, "IT is embedded in everything Zappos does, from engineering and continually enhancing the customer's online experience to coordinating the warehouse robot system."

Progressive Corp.: "Virtually all new hires at Progressive take a core insurance curriculum at the company's IT University. After that, they spend at least a few years out in the business units." The company's CIO, Ray Voelker, "spent several years early in his career in the claims business."

Southwest Airlines Co: "Virtually all of the products Southwest has developed and implemented have been enabled by technology...." IT employees are not hired based on their technical knowledge, but hired on "passion for customer service and open communication," considered "absolutely critical in the airline's 850-person IT group 'because it is technology that is our product.'"

Procter & Gamble Co.: "To help drive faster adoption of more products, IT has developed a virtualized environment that P&G uses to conduct product design work, product placement research and even consumer feedback studies."

Interestingly, these converged companies also have something else in common: their employees and managers easily swap roles in and out of IT positions. Such was the case with Vanguard's CIO Paul Heller, who has also led the firm's retail division. "We're really not all that complicated of a firm," he is quoted as saying. "We're not trying to do 100 different things, so there's not that classic tension between different businesses, and there aren't stovepipe systems. It's really all about running the firm, and it's about doing the right thing for the client. We all move between jobs, so it's not about your job; it's about wearing that bigger hat -- the Vanguard hat."

So, perhaps its time to put the tired argument of "IT-business alignment" to rest. 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.  Until King's article referenced above, I've rarely even heard anyone describe what a business with business-IT alignment would actually look and act like.

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"?

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.  In companies that are moving forward and meeting the expectations of their customers, IT folks not only "get" the business, they are the business.

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