by Thomas Wailgum

If IT Isn’t Aligned with the Business By Now, CIOs Should Quit or Be Fired

Dec 07, 2007 5 mins
IT Leadership

I’ve been listening to CIOs, reading about CIOs and hearing their problems for almost 12 years now, and to be perfectly candid, I am sick and tired of having to listen to CIOs’ alignment struggles: The seemingly insurmountable challenge of aligning their IT department’s mission and priorities with their business’s mission and priorities.

This so-called predicament has been on our radar screen for decades. We’ve written ad nauseam about alignment challenges in the past. Here’s one article that makes the case for The ROI of alignment. Another where we question why alignment was so difficult. Another where we offer a formula for alignment. And still another where our in-house coach instructs CIOs to avoid the “managing expectations” moniker when addressing alignment. There’s a lot more. Trust me.

In addition, my e-mail inbox receives a steady stream of survey results that detail the cumulative admonitions from CIOs regarding their alignment failings.

The most recent damning evidence came from CA in late November. “IT executives around the world are seeking to do a better job of aligning IT investments with business goals, but only about half believe they are doing so,” said the report, which polled 300 CIOs and IT executives at companies with more than $250 million in annual revenues. (Full disclosure: The survey was conducted by CIO’s Custom Solutions Group.)

It gets worse: 74 percent of respondents believe that better prioritization of IT spending based on business needs is a critical IT management goal. Now, there are many ways you can interpret that data point, but to me it says: Almost three-quarters of CIOs have yet to align basic IT spending with business priorities. It’s a goal. In fact, the survey found that only 38 percent of CIOs feel that they are effective or very effective in enabling IT to prioritize based on business needs. About half the respondents report their efforts are only somewhat effective, and for 13 percent of companies, “the situation is much worse.”

Mind you, this survey was completed in 2007! Not 1987.

From my perspective, alignment woes have become an all-to-convenient excuse for underperforming IT chiefs. The word is a crutch that CIOs use to cover up their fear of actually talking to, engaging with and fleshing out core business needs. It allows CIOs to hide from actually solving those strategic business problems. And rather than making IT transparent—the opposite of the unwieldy and unmanageable cost center that it is notoriously known as—CIOs seem to want to stay separate. Aloof.

Isn’t the goal to be just another cog in the business’s machine?

By this point in IT’s evolution it seems incredulous to me that CIOs wouldn’t have realized the criticality of solving any potential business-IT disconnect, and then actually doing it. Which is why I’m so tired of hearing about it.

CIOs claim to know all about the alignment imperative. Results from our 2008 “State of the CIO” survey, which polled more than 550 IT leaders, show that 100 percent of respondents say that aligning IT and business was their number-one priority. Great! At least CIOs know what they should be doing.

But if all CIOs know about it and claim to have been working on it for decades, then why are we still talking about it, and hearing about the alignment fracture from CIOs and CEOs, and having to sift through survey after survey about the alignment challenge? And how can CIOs in good faith show their face every morning at their jobs and collect that bi-weekly pay check when they haven’t fulfilled the most fundamental responsibility of their job description?

Please don’t whine to me about how the business side doesn’t understand IT. In fact, it’s more than likely that they do. Just look at the insane rise of consumer technologies and applications, and the momentous effect it’s already had on enterprise IT. Businesses love technology these days.

The problem is CIOs are either too obtuse in their dealings (meetings, presentations, one-on-one cafeteria conversations) with their business peers or spend too much time in the air-conditioned server rooms to recognize the fact that all business executives worth their salt want to get as much as they can out of their IT investment. They know how critical IT is to the business. So don’t use that excuse.

I believe that one of the chief causes of alignment difficulties is self-inflicted on CIOs’ part. In many conversations and interviews I’ve had with CIOs and other IT personnel, they always refer to the rest of the company as the “business” and themselves as “IT.” And it is that that kind of fractured thinking—that IT is somehow not part of the business but is a special, separate entity unto itself—that promotes a flawed and dangerous mindset that will forever prevent from aligning IT with the business.

For that mindset to change, a revolution has to start at the top, with you, the CIO. Are you finally ready to do something about it?