‘Business-IT Alignment’ is history… long live ‘Business-IT symbiosis’

It is time we started talking about IT and business in terms of co-dependency, not alignment.

Symbiosis in nature’s design.

It is time we started talking about IT and business in terms of symbiosis, not alignment.

Over at Doug Newdick’s blog a discussion is running on the overuse of the word ‘alignment’ by enterprise architects.  Chasing alignment, he says, simply ensures that what people are doing in the name of enterprise architecture does not undermine the higher level business objectives.  While not violating business objectives is clearly non-negotiable, it should not be the main game for architects.  If it is, the architecture will likely undershoot its potential by a significant distance.

‘If we believe that through architecture we are trying to drive better outcomes for business from our use of IT, then we must demand more than just alignment’.

In place of alignment, Doug suggests that architecture should be measured by how it delivers, contributes to, supports and enables ‘higher level’ business outcomes.

Business-IT alignment has been written about almost passionately over the years.  Alignment has conventionally been regarded as the mark of health of the enterprise’s architecture, its ability to support the business now and wherever it may go.  Although there will always be exceptions, alignment of IT strategy with business strategy is often not difficult.  Here are a few business/IT strategy pairs:

i) Business strategy: present a unified face to customers…
Aligned IT strategy: consolidate customer facing systems into a market-leading CRM platform.

ii) Business strategy: improve efficiency and reduce operating costs…
Aligned IT strategy: eliminate system and data redundancy and retire associated support services and costs.

If aligning intentions is not the problem, executing the aligned IT plans in some kind of responsive timeframe most definately is.  Most CIOs recognise that realising alignment represents the IT department’s biggest challenge.  If the planning is the one percent inspiration part, execution is the ninety-nine percent perspiration part.   Ideas, strategies and plans are cheap.  Implementing them leads inevitablty to (often big-budget) business transformation programs.

‘Alignment’ is indeed an overused and misused term, and ‘supporting higher level outcomes’ is better because it puts more obligation on IT to empower the business.

‘Alignment’ implies that technology and business strategy are separate, and that one (technology architecture) is created to serve the other (business strategy).  This separation reveals deterministic thinking — only when the business has been ‘pinned down’ with a statement of priorities can the technology plan be started.

This kind of ’cause and effect’ model of organisational planning has little credibility these days, although many consultancies continue to successfully sell ’cause and effect strategy’ engagements.  It is reminiscent of the structure and strategy debate.  Richard Veryard describes how different observers see strategy as dictating structure, vice-versa, or neither (this last perspective attributed to Henry Minzberg).  Veryard distinguishes between planned and emergent structure which is adds another dimension to frustrate ’cause and effect’ strategists.

I prefer to think of business strategy and technology as being intermingled, co-dependent to the point where you cannot do one without the other.  There is no such thing as ‘alignment’ in a symbiotic relationship — each part exists for the other.

Business continues to drive technology just as in the past.  But increasingly, technology capabilities drive business because new business services are made possible by new technology.  As Jeff Scott recently pointed out, the best strategic thinkers do both at the same time in an iterative strategic planning cycle .  Not only are strategies crafted in an incremental fashion — the strategist must juggle business priorities in one hand and technology capabilities  in the other.

Grasping this co-dependency will lead to some different behaviours.  For a start, business planning and IT planning will be done together, because they increasingly define each other.   The capabilities of available products and platforms will be central to the symbiotic planning process because they define exactly what can be done quickly.  Insights from business data will also be on hand.  All of a sudden, the strategic planning exercise starts to look like a rapid prototyping game.  Smaller, nimble, unencumbered organisations do this naturally.  When the titans of the business world start to get this, things will really start to change.

Business-IT alignment is history.  Long live Business-IT symbiosis.


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