One of the most overused terms I've heard in the past few years as CEO of an IT consulting and staffing firm has to be the word "alignment." Think about it. How many times have you heard phrases like, "IT must learn to align with the business" or that "smart CIOs know that in order to succeed, IT must align with the business"?
Not only are these phrases overused and condescending (the implication that CIOs lack business smarts or proper business education, that is), they are also statements with which I wholeheartedly disagree. If you are merely aligning with the business, you are not doing enough. IT drives efficiencies. IT enables business. IT powers business success. The goal is not merely to align, but to get in front of the business goals and spearhead growth through next generation products and customer service.
By its very definition, "align" means to fall in line. To get behind. It suggests that the business sets the pace. It sets the strategy. In aligning, IT must fall directly behind, and keep pace with, the business.
Why it Matters
Traditionally, the alignment discussion comes up in one of two ways. Either, we're discussing corporate respect and reporting structures within an organization — the IT department's lack of leadership representation or a "seat at the table" — or we're discussing the common view that IT is merely a "cost center." While I am not suggesting that these problems and perceptions will instantly disappear, the shift in mindset can happen if you understand its scope and take the lead in making the necessary changes.
If Not Alignment, Then What?
IT does drive and enable business. It's time for IT leadership to drive that point home. Many of our clients get this. One of our insurance clients, for example, proudly touts IT's efforts in developing its mobile app development. IT rallied others to join them in their efforts during Hurricane Katrina to issue real-time checks and to deliver much-needed funds to those most critically in need. In this case, IT led the effort. IT delivered the technology. The business grew stronger and benefited from this leadership.
In another case, our financial services client's IT group developed a cutting edge analytics product to use in-house. With what seemed initially valuable as an in-house tool alone, is now a leading value-added offering to the bank's clients. In both instances, there is no talk of leveraging IT to merely "keep the lights on," and no one talks about IT in raw Selling, General & Administrative Expense (SG&A) numbers. IT leadership has a seat at the table, and the top layer of IT management knows how to drive innovation from their teams.
These examples of innovation and IT-generated efficiencies are likely the reason most of your staff went into IT in the first place — the idea that there is a better, faster, more efficient way of doing things, and that IT can make that happen. Yet, somewhere along the way we lost track of this connection and reduced their influence.
CIO Benny Kirsh takes issue with what he sees as semantics, noting the "fine line between 'aligning with' and 'driving' business." Nevertheless, he has always led forward-thinking, innovative IT teams. During his tenure as CIO at Kyphon, IT drove the implementation of a quality assurance system assuring compliance to FDA regulatory requirements. The initiative reduced time-to-close complaints by 35 percent and increased on-time user training from 55 percent to 97 percent. The implementation included automated documentation and version control, providing a compliant working environment leading to minor discrepancies during FDA audits. Under his watch, the business was able to increase sales and reduce costly FDA responses. Call it alignment, call it driving business — Kirsh doesn't pay much mind to what you call it. "IT must be proactive and come up with great ideas on how to generate more revenue or make processes more efficient to impact the bottom line."