Why IT Management Frameworks Don't Guarantee IT Success

It just isn't enough for your IT organization to have mature management and software development processes if the business organizations don't do their part. Companies also need an IT maturity model for the enterprise. PLUS: 5 tips to jump-start consultants and standards organizations.

CIOs care a lot about their IT organization's maturity. CMMI, COBIT and ISO are well-established frameworks that IT organizations use to assess their evolutionary development, whether in project and software processes, service delivery, security and risk management or IT controls. Research and consulting firms have large and established revenue streams helping IT organizations to assess themselves and advance from one level of maturity to the next. But to my knowledge, the consultants have yet to establish a direct correlation between these levels of maturity and the degree of business-IT alignment, or how successful the IT organization is at delivering what the business wants and expects.

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Alignment has improved only slightly since 2000, even though IT executives say it's a top goal almost every time they're asked. According to a September 2007 survey by the Society of Information Management and MIS Quarterly, IT organizations have, on average, made little progress in alignment in seven years. (More on the ROI of Alignment.)

Researchers Jerry Luftman and Rajkumar Kempaiah annually surveyed IT executives between 2000 and 2006 about how evolved their organizations were for six components of alignment: communications, value, governance, partnership, scope and architecture, and skills. A score of 1 indicated responders had an initial, ad-hoc process for that component, and a score of 5 was equated to an optimized process. The respondents' average score (across all components) during the period between 2000 and 2003 was 2.99, and the average between 2004 and 2007 was 3.18. That's not a big jump for a seven-year period. Something is preventing IT organizations from moving alignment along.

Do Mature IT Practices Matter?

Maybe CIOs and consultants have their eye on the wrong ball - they are too focused on the best practices of the IT organization. Perhaps the degree of rigor in software development processes (CMMI) or looking at the control and audit processes (CoBit), are necessary for running a tight, internal IT ship, but insufficient to bring IT closer to the business.

Let's think of all the ways an enterprise can derail a well-intentioned IT organization trying to move along in its practices, but failing to achieve a high level of alignment. Perhaps the primary metric for IT is the cost of IT itself, and not the impact of technology use in the business. Perhaps business participation in strategic projects is sporadic, but the project is expected to proceed anyway. Perhaps senior executives are naive about ways technology could help their business units, or they quash efforts by IT staffers who try to make recommendations. Perhaps the CEO has not set any specific expectations with the CIO and is only monitoring the role by the absence of complaints about IT. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Perhaps the best framework for IT won't be about the department or the CIO at all. Instead, let's see consultants sink their teeth into measuring the enterprise's level of maturity in its view and use of technology. Perhaps consultants should turn their attention to CEOs, CFOs and COOs, and help them figure out how to evolve their approach to IT. These new maturity metrics could include the criteria they use to hire and evaluate the performance of the CIO, how they set expectations for IT and the extent to which they provide appropriate business resources to mission-critical technology projects.

Let's stuff those ideas into a framework and look critically at the IT maturity of today's enterprises.

An Enterprise IT Maturity Model

Here are five elements to jump-start the work of consultants and standards organizations:

1. Technology appetite. Organizations vary in their curiosity about and tolerance for new tools depending on their industry, the firm's culture, prior experience and the interest level of management. The maturity of a company on this metric could range from a resistance to new technologies of any type all the way to a must-have-it for competitive advantage level of engagement.

2. C-level involvement. This includes executive expectation and oversight of the C-level exec to whom the CIO reports. Range of maturity could span a hire-and-delegate immaturity, where the CEO establishes no or low expectations of the CIO, to a level of evolution, where the CEO has well-articulated expectations of the CIO, IT is expected to contribute revenue-generating ideas and C-level executives are actively engaged with the CIO in sponsoring and tracking progress.

3. Strategic capability. At one end of the maturity curve for this metric, some firms would have great difficulty clarifying a long-term strategic direction for their business and a tough time sustaining attention for long-term technology projects. And at the most mature firms, the opposite would be true: Not only would they have long-term strategic goals, but there would be sustained attention to IT as a way to achieve those goals.

4. Business department engagement. Experienced IT professionals will attest that a business department's role in IT projects can vary widely. At the lowest level of maturity, firms would have junior business users (or none at all) participate in requirements definition and implementation of IT projects. And they would wait until a project is done to announce that it didn't meet their needs. At the most evolved, senior business execs would place a top priority on working on IT projects themselves to ensure that they reach completion and match the requirement and expectation.

5. Change management skills. Technology initiatives are all about change. Immature firms would have little understanding of how to manage change in their organizations, whether the task is communicating, measuring, or completing initiatives that at one point seemed like a good idea. And at the other end of the maturity spectrum, firms would see change management as a core competence, and have staff trained in change management processes seeded in their business units.

Mature enterprises beget effective IT

An enterprise that is mature in its use and oversight of technology will have an IT organization that is well-aligned and successful. I'll bet on that.

Now, are there any consultants out there willing to solidify the criteria and start benchmarking companies in their enterprise IT maturity? Can they deliver consulting to help C-level execs move up the maturity curve?

Laurie M. Orlov does research and consulting on business and technology strategy. She is a former vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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