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Could the Solution to IT's Problems be less IT-Business Alignment?

by Jean-Jacques Dubray on Jun 10, 2008 |

The golden days of IT are over. Everything that could be automated has been, often in a chaotic way, with disparate and ever changing technologies often resulting in total inertia fueled by a prohibitive cost to innovate, adapt and optimize. In a new economy where personalization and niche markets are the norm, Susan Cram, an industry expert on IT, reports:

IT's bureaucratic governance process rivals the tax code in complexity and inhibits rather than promotes innovation.

One global Fortune 200 CIO describes leading IT as "a sucking vortex."

...No doubt the current operating model is ripe for an overhaul. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

The never ending debate about the role, the relevance or the organization of IT has added yet another frustration moment. Susan claims to have found 8 things we hate about IT.

not the people, of course, but the crazy system that results in the IT paradox of spending too much to create too little, too late.

So here they are:

1. IT Limits Managers' Authority. You bring in 10% of the company's revenue but can't authorize a $100,000 project if it requires IT.

2. They're Missing Adult Supervision.  IT "relationship managers" [don't] have the breadth of expertise to truly act as a trusted IT advisor to senior business executives.

3. They're Financial Extortionists. Emergenc[ies] in IT (e.g. Y2K, SOX, HIPAA) ... require a zillion dollars...

4. Their Projects Never End. In-process projects are always 90% done. 

5. The Help Desk is Helpless

6. They Let Outsourcers Run Amok

7. IT is Stocked with Out-of-Date Geeks

8. IT Never Has Good News. No matter how much you spend and how hard you work

The core of the problem seems to be well summarized by one of the executive she interviewed:

In the quest of getting things organized, they are introducing a bunch of bureaucracy and, in the process, they're abdicating their responsibility for making sure the right things get done.

For the most part readers agree, Vaidya Nathan responds:

I appreciate the frankness and candor and there is lot of merit in what you say

Tim Gray, a reader on the business side believes that:

My sense is that until some of Ray Kurzweil's singularity stuff starts to happen in the next 10 - 15 years complexity is going to keep growing faster than our ability to manage it...What if this is as good as it gets?

Susan wrote a follow up to her initial post about "The 8 Reasons you Should Love IT" where she argues:

It delivers complex IT services to a relatively unsophisticated and demanding “customer” who expects IT to serve their individual needs without regard for the benefit and risks to the enterprise.

Building around that customer creates all kinds of negative effects. It depletes cash, perpetuates information silos, fragments processes.

She recommends "Avoiding the  alignment IT Trap".

The alignment trap is the situation that companies that find themselves in when they try to improve IT performance through increased IT and business alignment and the IT performance actually gets worse: the harder they try, the worse it gets. IT should enable business growth and performance, but in the alignment trap, IT is more of a barrier than an enabler. Everything about IT seems to cost too much and takes too long.

In a seminal paper published last year, Rudy Puryear's research demonstrated

Against Common wisdom, roadmap to IT-enabled growth begins with effectiveness. We have found that the first move for companies needs to be to get more effective and then get more aligned in order to avoid the alignment trap.

The doubt about IT and its ability to support the business strategy is mounting, worse, decades-old F500 companies and industry leaders are failing because their IT organization could not respond to competitive pressures, could not provide enough visibility, did not have the appropriate security measures or simply because some of their business rules could not catch unhealthy transactions. The recent acceleration of the vendors consolidation is reminiscent of what happened to the mainframe business in the 80s. Could it be the signal of the end of an era? Where does the solution lie? Methodology, Architecture, Technologies, Organization? Based on some of the current (frustrating) discussions our industry is focusing on, we could easily conclude that all bets are off. 

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Not alignment .. action by Julian Browne

The solution isn't more or less business alignment, it's recognising that alignment itself it a fallacious concept. Discussions about alignment are a by-product of the FUD put around by consultancies as the big enterprise integration initiatives of the nineties went off the rails. They created this mental model of something called the "business" and something called "IT" that need to be aligned. It's all the business. You never hear marketing talk about aligning with finance and yet they each perform distinct but complimentary roles that need to cooperate to make a company successful.



I’d go so far as to say that if alignment were possible it would ultimately be detrimental anyway, because the “business” at best would only get exactly what it asked for, without the chance to examine what it could have had if only it knew the capabilities available. To move away from requirements and into possibilities IT needs to grow up, take accountability for its own actions and stop seeing itself as the uninvited guest at the party.

Re: Not alignment .. action by John McGinnis

Julian hits it on the head. Reading the article much of the 'complaint' have nothing to do with IT.

1. IT Limits Managers' Authority. You bring in 10% of the company's revenue but can't authorize a $100,000 project if it requires IT.
-----------------------
Excuse me! That is a definition driven by Finance. So start there first.

2. They're Missing Adult Supervision. IT "relationship managers" [don't] have the breadth of expertise to truly act as a trusted IT advisor to senior business executives.
------------------------------
Ok so where is Upper Management with the brass to start firing a few people? You get the advise you deserve.

3. They're Financial Extortionists. Emergenc[ies] in IT (e.g. Y2K, SOX, HIPAA) ... require a zillion dollars...
---------------------------------------
Other than the Y2K thing this is all driven by external legal specifications. IT is reacting/advising. Or would you rather see your CEO in SOX jail?

4. Their Projects Never End. In-process projects are always 90% done.
-----------------------------
Sadly this one is true more often than not. But I do beg a question. Why not turn off the financial tap? If mgt does not define a end date then projects never end.

5. The Help Desk is Helpless
---------------------------------
Then don't have one. You would be surprised how much help desk is located outside of IT in the business units. Leverage it.

6. They Let Outsourcers Run Amok
--------------------------------
Sadly this is true too.

7. IT is Stocked with Out-of-Date Geeks
---------------------------
Hmm... the reason might be because you have Out-of-Date Systems. Might want to do an audit and then ask yourself -- did we cut too much?

8. IT Never Has Good News. No matter how much you spend and how hard you work
-----------------------------
Ok. But neither does Marketing, Finance, Production, et. al. IT provides a service; it is not the corporate whipping boy.

Companies get in the trap of thinking IT is the solution. More often than not I have seen whole projects started to get around managements' unwillingness to knock a few heads and fire a few people. So they ask IT to program around it. I have also seen projects started as a matter of corporate deflection to take heat off the requesting division. How smart is that? It is not useful of the company or IT.

Till management views IT no differently than the production floor, the panacea of unrequited godliness will not be stamped out.

Re: Not alignment .. action by Mr Magoo

Till management views IT no differently than the production floor, the panacea of unrequited godliness will not be stamped out.

I was agreeing with you up to this point...


While we borrow many features from the factory floor (e.g. agile) we are not the same thing. This is not just a developer being upset that you compared him to a minimum wage worker, but that the process is entirely different.


In fact, I have often argued that the fact that they DO treat IT as if it was just a factory process (money in, product out, profit. repeat indefinitely.) causes the nonesense that is mentioned above! One thing that never ceases to amaze me is who little almost all management get IT. For example, the continuous driving development teams into the ground with deadlines and requirements changesand then the "throwing up of the hands in wonder" when quality is below standard and adding new features costs the earth? (and then the explanation of exactly why and how much damage has done to the core codebase because of the phrase "just get it done") Again, this is because on the production floor, the dangers are typically less pronounced, expensive and long term.


There is much more to this statement of course, but the whistle just blew and my smoko is up.


I guess it all depends on what you meant by this metaphor as it could imply a wide variety of things.

Re: Not alignment .. action by Leif Singer

Maybe I'm being naive, but isn't IT more of a support system orthogonal to actual business functions -- an aspect that you inject into your business logic, so to say? I don't get how the relationship between finance and marketing (complementary functions) is the same as the one between finance and IT or between marketing and IT (orthogonal functions) for that matter.

Could someone enlighten me as to if and, if so, where I got that totally wrong?

Defining & Achieving Value is an Internal Operation by Zubin Wadia

It all starts with business leadership (and I include IT in this) understanding their own model and executing. Otherwise it is just a long journey riddled with convenient assumptions and unsustainable compromises.



All IT can do at that point is hope they atleast have a proficient team that builds systems with sound architectural principles to withstand all the deltas thrown at them. The more distributed & cloud oriented we will get, the more relevant this will become.



The worst thing an IT department can do is submit itself to regimes. 5 year cycles where they switch from religion to religion (for e.g. .NET to JEE to RoR) in the pursuit of technology that works for them. Teams come and go, consultants come and go, technology comes and goes - rinse and repeat.



Consultants are only effective in environments where leadership is focused and committed to a vision that focuses on the execution of a business objective. If the objective isn't clear because of diluted leadership, it stunts innovation and forces a more conservative route to be taken. In the worst case, this results in a system incapable of growing into the final solution.



Cheers,


Zubin Wadia


CTO


www.imagework.com


"Business Acceleration through Process Automation."

Re: Not alignment .. action by Julian Browne

You're not naive, or wrong. IT is a support function - it supports all the other departments to one degree or other, just as finance does. But beyond the business-as-usual, get-the-basics-right, good-practice etc aspects of IT there's what you might call a differentiating opportunity. That's where IT can add enormous value to the bottom line.



I assume we'd all agree that IT is difficult to do well, that's partly what makes it such a great field to work in, and it's got harder over the years with the growth in landscape complexity (from globalisation, mergers and acquisitions etc) and increasing business demands. So of course mistakes will be made - IT is still maturing and each new wave of three-letter acronyms solves a few problems and creates a few more. But you can find plenty of marketing mistakes and finance mistakes to laugh at, so in that sense we're no different.



What we shouldn't do is think that the mistakes are due to a lack of something called IT/business alignment. Consultants come along and perform a kind of corporate cold reading saying things like "ah.. I sense you need greater business alignment and your project process is not well followed". It all sounds great, and entirely plausible to the CEO who backs a massive change program (cue more consultants) to fix things. And as Zubin points out this becomes a tiresome 'rinse and repeat' cycle.



I believe that the solution is first to get the basics right in those support areas (and if you want to call "providing a good service" business alignment then I guess they're just words so I wouldn't argue that point) and when mistakes are made just deal with them and move on.



And second to capitalise on the fact that modern software techniques can provide a lot more than just a nice web site and a reliable desktop. By acting like an intrinsic part of the business (which we are), that is to say an equal partner and not the problem child, it is possible to take the initiative and lead the way. All business are different so exactly when and where this makes sense is a judgement call, but I've never met a sponsor outside of IT that doesn't relish the chance to have an idea enhanced and shaped by someone who knows more about what's possible than they do. What they really hate is IT taking the requirements as they are and coming back with a list of reasons why they are hard to deliver.



It's a dialogue, and IT should stand up for itself more in these areas, because successful projects are good for everyone. Look at businesses like Amazon - Werner Vogels is a geek (in the nicest possible way) and yet he and his team must have paid their salaries back hundreds of times over in the value they have added to the business by taking the lead and not doing the done thing. In fact InfoQ is full of presentations from other organisations that illustrate this point very well.



That's really all I mean by action, not alignment. When IT stops seeing itself as somehow different from the other departments and stops talking about alignment, but instead gets stuck in, it's amazing how aligned you feel.

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