The Chimera of Business-IT Alignment

Most of the talk in enterprise architecture circles is about business-IT alignment. By which I take it that we mean that IT should not prevent the rest of the organisation’s attempts to meet its goals, follow its strategies and deliver its outcomes. Or, more strongly, that IT should directly contribute and support the rest of the organisations attempts to follow the strategies, meet the goals, and deliver the outcomes. These are laudable aims, but to my mind if we pursue this too narrowly we may miss the bigger issue: there is no use seeking business-IT alignment if we don’t have business-business alignment. In other words, you cannot achieve business-IT alignment, if the business is not aligned with itself. If different parts of the business are not aligned we will find we don’t have IT aligned with itself causing conflict and inefficiencies; parts of IT may well be aligned with parts of the business, it will necessarily come into conflict with those other parts of the business that are in conflict with the first part of the organisation we have been focussing on.

For example, I have worked for organisations where two parts of the organisation were developing products that weren’t aligned – they were in effect competitors, with overlapping value propositions, different means of delivery and different roadmaps. Therefore the two parts of IT looking to deliver the supporting IT infrastructure for these products couldn’t figure out how to align and support one another. We had external customers asking us how to make sense of the two products – and which of the two products they should use in order to achieve the business outcome we sought. In this case the overall organisation could have made much better use of its money by just developing one of these two products.

In another organisation, different business units refused to share the same common back-office application as this would lead to them “losing control”. This went against overarching directives from the executive to use common systems to reduce duplication and cost. This lead to conflicts between IT and one part of the business (departments – which funded projects) as IT sought to align with the executive. in other scenarios IT staff came into conflict with one another, as some staff sided with the departmental objectives (delivery, lower cost to the business unit) while other staff sided with the executive (lower cost to the company as a whole, greater overall business agility).

So, is business-IT alignment what you really want? Is it really attainable? Or is business-business alignment the key thing? And is that attainable? I don’t think that this is a profound observation, just a warning. While we are off ensuring that IT is supporting the objectives of the business, we may be missing the more important prize of ensuring that all the different parts of the business are supporting its objectives. I take it that this is the real value proposition of business architecture.

This post was based on some thoughts generated during a discussion with Nick Malik that was hosted by Microsoft.

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4 Comments to “The Chimera of Business-IT Alignment”

  1. Also implies that each part of the business is aligned with its own vision. Its goals and objectives need to be clearly defined to support its strategy. Without that basic (somewhat obvious) alignment, IT can’t possibly hope to deliver value regardless of whether it is the machinery of the business or not.

    • Hmm, I think I am more cynical than you Chris – or maybe more pessimistic. I think that the goals and objectives are rarely well defined, yet we still have some organisations even in that state that act more aligned, and others that act less aligned (and some times even when the goals are well defined and articulated, they just are ignored). But, your headline point is right – irrespective of the role of IT in our business, if parts of the busienss are misaligned, your IT will be less effective.

  2. You’re probably talking about a much older issue than technology alignment in the business world which is “strategic alignment”; also the notion of Business-IT alignment is not as significant as it used to be when EA was born. IT is now the second largest expense on enterprise balance sheets (in most cases) after payroll, so “IT is the business”. think of technology as machinery in the manufacturing world.

    • Hi Mehrdad,

      Yes, it is an older issue, though I would hesitate to label it “strategic alignment” as I think it goes beyond merely strategy, to action, execution and operations. I’d also hesitate to say that business-IT alignment is not as significant as it used to be – I think it is still talked about a lot, but clearly I don’t think it is as important as many EAs think.

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