Are You Hiring the Wrong IT Staff to Achieve Your Alignment Goals?

Your problems with IT-business alignment stem from the people you hire. If you're placing too much emphasis on hiring IT professionals with computer science degrees, you're not going to get candidates who understand business operations and can bridge the IT-business alignment gap.

Are you having problems with alignment? Is your IT staff unable to provide the business with the support it needs? Does it seem like your IT staff just doesn't understand the business? Perhaps they don't.

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For years, authors and top-ranked CIOs have complained about business and IT alignment. CIO magazine articles like Why Is Business-IT Alignment So Difficult, How to Close the IT-Business Alignment Gap and The ROI of Alignment, coupled with the ongoing presence of alignment as one of the top ten information management concerns every year, indicates that the problem of aligning information technology with business goals and processes is much deeper and more fundamental than we realize.

The real problem underlying the IT business alignment conundrum is that we're not hiring the right people in IT. The right people need strong backgrounds in both business and technology. Most IT hiring managers place too much emphasis on strong technology backgrounds.

A recent CIO.com article, Why Business Analysts Are So Important for IT and CIOs, depicts how critical it is to have a meaningful combination of business and information technology know-how. The article states that the most successful business analysts (e.g. the ones who most effectively apply IT in business environments) possess the ability to "communicate, facilitate and analyze" not technology, but business. In addition, the article propounds that these positions "tilt more toward business functions such as operations, marketing, finance or engineering." Although the article hits the nail directly on the head when identifying the capabilities that will enable your staff to "turn business-requested, IT-delivered applications into tomorrow's dynamic business applications," it fails to address why these individuals are so difficult to find.

The reason? These people are hard to find because businesses are not asking for them.

Computer Science Versus Information Systems Degrees

Job announcements for business analyst and business-related IT positions specify that the candidate should possess a degree in Computer Technology or Computer Science. The problem with that degree requirement is that computer science and technology degrees do not require business courses. How can you expect alignment to occur between business and IT when the technology staff has no business training or background? You can't.

There are two broad areas of computer-related degrees: One is computer science, and the other is information systems. Although the two are often lumped together under the heading of computer technology, they are vastly different at both their core and their objectives. Simply stated, the computer science degree focuses on the science and development of technology, while the information systems degree focuses on how to support business through the application of information technology. The table below compares information system degree coursework to the requirements for a computer science degree. You can see that the degree requirements are very different. While the information systems degree is replete with business courses, the computer science degree has none. You can't expect alignment of IT with business needs when many on your IT staff may never have had even one business course.

Information Systems Computer Science
1st year 1st year

Analytical Writing

Applied Calculus (Business)

Intro to Data Management

Human Communication

Lab Science

Analytical Writing

Calculus I

Calculus II

Programming & Algorithms I

Lab Science

2nd year 2nd year

Principles of Economics (Macro & Micro)

Financial Accounting

Managerial Accounting

Business Statistics I & II

Principles of Management

Software Engineering I & II

Principles of Marketing

Discrete Mathematics

Programming & Algorithms II

Differential Equations

Computer Engineering

Software Engineering & Design

Introduction to Networks

Human Communication
3rd year 3rd year

Operations Management

Business Law

Managerial Finance

Advanced Programming

Introduction to Networks

Operating Systems

International Business

Probability & Statistics

Analysis of Algorithms

Computer Science Elective

Computer Science Elective

Programming Language Design

Elective

Elective
4th year 4th year

Systems Analysis & Design

Advanced Networking

Database Management

Business Strategy & Policy

Information Systems Elective

Operating Systems

Database Management

Senior Software Project

Social & Professional Issues in Computing

Computer Science Elective

An IT staffer who doesn't know the difference between debit and a credit transactions can't be expected to support accounting and finance. Similarly, IT departments can't align and support extended value chains when the staff has never heard of CRM, SCM or JIT. If IT professionals have never had a management, marketing, accounting, finance or operations course, it isn't hard to understand why they don't understand your business needs. When examining the requirements for the computer science degree, exactly where in your business alignment needs do you fit the requirement for not having a solid understanding of business?

Graduates holding either degree have many opportunities for employment in a wide variety of organizations and positions. In fact, Bill Gates recently asked our government to raise the H-1B visa quota due to a lack of qualified technical expertise in the United States. Whether or not one agrees with Mr. Gates, enrollment in computer-related college programs is down. If Mr. Gates wants more "qualified technical expertise" then Microsoft should be advertising for, focusing on and hiring people with computer science degrees.

Similarly, if you and your organization want business and IT alignment, you need IT people who have a strong understanding of business as well as information technology. You should be hiring IT professionals with information systems degrees for those positions. If the demand for information systems degrees begins to appear in job requirements, the supply will surface to accommodate the need.

To be clear, I am not advocating that businesses only hire people with information systems degrees. Many positions require strong computer science backgrounds, such as those in process control, computer integration, networking, telecommunications provisioning, artificial intelligence and some Web and graphics applications. However, organizations of all sizes need information technology people who can communicate in business terms, elicit business requirements, develop and implement business systems, support business analysis (financial, marketing, operations/production and forecasting, for example), understand market segments, conduct statistical business assessments, be able to analyze business opportunities for risk and impact on operations, and above all, understand business well enough to attempt alignment.

To increase the probability of alignment, to optimize your opportunity for business success and to reduce the gap between business and information technology, you need your best assets—the right people. Don't continue to decry IT's inability to understand business needs, their inability to deliver functionality on time and within budget, and most of all their inability to understand business strategy and alignment unless you have actually hired the right people for the right positions.

Dr. George E. Strouse is a professor of information systems at York College of Pennsylvania. He is a former CEO, CIO, business owner and consultant.

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