7 ways to effectively ensure IT-business alignment

Successful technology and business synchronization will never happen automatically. Here's how to get IT strategies and enterprise goals to mesh like clockwork.

7 ways to effectively ensure IT-business alignment
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In an ideal universe, the IT and business worlds would be perfectly aligned, with IT supplying business leaders with the strategic plans and resources necessary to achieve maximum performance, efficiency and profits.

Yet, as you may have noticed, seeking perfection can be a somewhat elusive quest. In the real world, IT leaders are often left guessing whether the plans they've created and the technologies they've selected are actually fulfilling enterprise expectations. Business leaders, meanwhile, frequently fret that IT isn't fully tuned in to actual enterprise needs and challenges.

Fortunately, there are proven methods that enable IT leaders to gain a clear understanding of the IT-business relationship. The following seven suggestions show how to build a productive partnership that will satisfy stakeholders' needs while meeting IT's time and budget constraints.

1. Build close business relationships

Whether face-to-face or Zoom-to-Zoom, IT leaders should set aside time to meet and discuss important matters with business leaders across their enterprise. "A key component to a good dialogue is simply to speak in plain English, even when trying to explain complex technical issues," advises Nidal Haddad, principal for ecosystems and alliances at business advisory firm Deloitte Consulting.

Building close alignment between IT and business requires committing to earnest, insightful discussions. Imagine, for instance, a conversation about AI. In this example, the business leader wants to adopt the technology, but doesn't understand that AI is primarily cloud-based or that AI works best when fueled by large amounts of data. "By explaining the concepts behind AI in a clear manner, the business leader can be introduced to the building blocks for AI, and the IT leader can develop an acceptable strategy," Haddad says.

To build strong, close ties, IT management also needs to listen to and learn from their business counterparts. "IT leaders can't create a plan to enable business priorities in a vacuum," Haddad explains. "It's better to ask [business] leaders to share their plans, removing the guesswork around business needs and intentions." Remember, too, that IT is a key player in defining the corporate vision. "Most successful IT departments serve as powerful enablers, magnifying the strategy of the business and compounding its success," he states.

A close interpersonal relationship is powerful because it "gut checks IT initiatives against business growth plans," says Deb Gildersleeve, CIO of application building platform developer QuickBase. "IT folks shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to their colleagues, whether in marketing, accounting or any other department, to better understand their pain points and to brainstorm solutions together," she advises, noting that collaboration tools, such as Slack, are "invaluable in maintaining a free and open dialogue."

2. Ask the right questions

When meeting with business colleagues, it's natural to zero in on questions relating to IT technologies, strategies and operations. Yet these topics are a strange, foreign territory for most business leaders. "It requires them to role-play your job, and they're not very good at that because it’s never been their job," explains Rob Collie, founder and CEO of P3, a business intelligence consulting firm.

Collie believes that it's far more useful and productive to ask business leaders about their own jobs, including their view of market trends and the key business challenges they're facing. "It’s then our job on the IT side to evaluate where technology solutions could be brought online to service those needs," he states. "That’s really the essence of the IT mission statement."

3. Build trust

Successful relationships are built on trust, transparency, mutual respect and shared goals. Professional connections are no different. "Ensuring you have a deep understanding of your partners' business, taking extreme ownership of challenges and being vulnerable are all tenants of building tight partnerships," observes Andrew Palmer, CIO for the U.S. Region at Liberty Mutual Insurance.

Failing to align IT and business interests gradually erodes hard-earned trust. "It fuels skepticism in technology strategies, promotes a culture of blame, reduces patience and forces planning into unproductive levels of detail resulting in a false sense of precision," Palmer says. When business leaders have confidence in their IT organization, everything moves faster. "Decision-making is crisper, risk-taking is increased and teams spend more time executing than planning."

Creating and cultivating a culture that supports constant, open communication is another key to building close and trusting IT and business collaboration. "The result is one team with shared goals and objectives," says Merim Becirovic, managing director for global IT and enterprise architecture at business consulting firm Accenture. IT leaders should invite business leaders to discuss the challenges and goals of day-to-day business processes and how IT can help improve speed, efficiency and innovation. "This two-way communication culture and encouraging feedback ... can let both IT and the business know how to continue improving collaboration," he notes.

4. Become a motivator

Most business leaders expect IT to be the engine that propels enterprise success. "Only aiming to meet defined business needs is selling IT short," says Aviv Ben-Yosef, an independent tech industry executive consultant and coach. "The best IT teams in the world bring forth their own innovation to solve business needs"

Understand that business leaders may not yet be aware of important new or enhanced technologies. It's an IT leader's responsibility, Ben-Yosef says, to alert business colleagues to disruptive and transformational technologies with the potential to change the entire business landscape, as well as lesser innovations that can lead to incremental market and performance enhancements.

5. Measure with metrics

Metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs), reflecting the business outcomes of critical systems and processes, are valuable tools that can help both IT and business leaders determine how well IT operations are aligned with business needs. "Examples of business outcome-driven KPIs include tracking whether the programs you delivered provided business benefits and tracking the downtime of employees as a result of IT issues," says Chris Fielding, CIO of Sungard Availability Services, an IT recovery services firm.

IT organizations generally set metrics and KPIs for activities they can directly control, such as service uptime, help desk responsiveness and the length of time needed to update systems and fix bugs. "These are all valuable and important metrics of efficiency," Haddad notes. Remember, though, that being efficient is table stakes for businesses, so it's never a good idea to attempt to hide sub-par KPIs. "An IT leader should take responsibility for and share the same metrics as their business counterparts," he advises.

On the opposite side of the coin, IT should be able to tap into business metrics to assess how well it's supporting essential enterprise operations. "For instance, if growing sales is the business goal, IT can then ask themselves if they’ve created the tools sales needs to sell efficiently," Haddad says.

6. Learn from surveys

Surveys should be designed with the goal of providing deep insights into the overall business vision, including strategy, key priorities and required capabilities. IT surveys have traditionally focused on technology and service quality in areas such as help desk support, delivery reliability, systems stability and security, Palmer notes. Times have changed, however. A modern survey should target the ways IT can help drive the business vision. "The goal is to capture the outcomes required to win around the core strategy, such as growth, profit, customer experience and innovation," Palmer says.

Survey questions will vary, depending on the target responders. "The key is to create surveys that are short and allow flexibility with answers," Becirovic recommends. "Qualitative feedback is just as importance as the percentages," he adds.

7. Conduct ongoing assessments

Like any business optimization initiative, IT/business alignment should be viewed as an open-ended project. "Establish processes to ensure redundancy and oversight to determine whether the relationship is successful or needs improvement," Gildersleeve suggests. "It’s really about constantly and consistently maintaining a dialogue with counterparts across the company," she observes.

Assessing alignment should be a constant conversation within IT management. "With consistent and frequent alignment checks, the IT team will evolve from being reactive to being proactive," Haddad notes. "A proactive IT team works to fix and address issues before they occur rather than waiting for a problem to force damage control and recovery."

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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