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Business-Driven Architect

Brenda Michelson

Beware the "Alignment Trap"

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As most know, my IT soapbox has "business-driven" emblazoned on all sides. By business-driven, I'm referring to an IT organization's imperative - to deliver business value. In this vein, I talk about (harp on) numerous topics including business-focused technology innovation, business-driven architecture, IT gaining business-smarts, and more recently business-IT integration.

I started to use the term 'business-IT integration', because I'm thinking beyond traditional business-IT alignment. Alignment refers to the review and reconciliation of independent activities, in this context the reconciliation of business strategy and plans with IT strategy, architecture and plans.

For business to reap the true value of IT, business and IT must collaborate on the development of strategy, architecture and plans. This collaboration, which should continue through delivery and operations, is business-IT integration. In order to have an integrated environment, business and IT professionals must be more conversant in the other's discipline. Historically, IT has put this learning burden on the business, but it's time for IT professionals to 'get business'.

If you bear with me for a moment more, I'd say that business-IT integration will naturally evolve to a business-IT fusion of sorts, at least in the strategy and innovation arenas, but now I've gone well beyond the intent of my post...

My intent was to amplify a key message from a MIT Sloan Article on Avoiding the Alignment Trap in IT. The authors, from Bain & Company, share their "growing realization ... that the usual diagnoses of IT's troubles - and the usual prescriptions for fixing those troubles - are often misguided". In particular, they call out companies "seeking to deliver higher business value performance by harnessing IT have focused on alignment... the degree to which the IT group understands the priorities of the business and expends its resources, pursues projects and provides information consistent with them".

The authors believe the following is true "A lack of alignment can doom IT either to irrelevance or to failure". However, they raise an important flag that every IT leader should take to heart "a narrow focus on alignment reflects a fundamental misconception about the nature of IT. Underperforming capabilities are often rooted not just in misalignment but in the complexity of systems, applications and other infrastructure."

They go on to describe situations in which business alignment run amok actually drives up IT complexity - silo-ed data centers, customized packaged applications, bolting on legacy applications, lack of standards and shared infrastructure - therefore driving down IT performance.

The authors quote Richard F. Connell, senior executive vice president and CIO of Selective Insurance Group "Aligning a poorly performing IT organization to the right business objectives still won't get the objectives accomplished". That, the authors say "is the alignment trap".

For those in the alignment trap, the authors recommend a return to basics "temporarily focusing on effectiveness at the expense of alignment". And of course, effectiveness requires simplification. Quoting Leonardo da Vinci, the authors remind us "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication".

The article has good insights on diagnosing IT pain and shares company anecdotes. If you have access to MIT Sloan Review, I recommend reading the article.

As for the big takeaway - in pursuing business-driven IT, don't lose sight of the fundamentals, effectiveness, simplicity (to the degree possible), and constant communication. Host cross project/initiative forums with key players (project managers, architects and business analysts). Open lines of communication and collaboration to help your organization "balance well the needs of the entire organization with those of individual businesses". And always, beware the alignment trap!

Brenda Michelson, Principal of Elemental Links, shares her view on architectural strategies, technology trends, business, and relevance.

Brenda Michelson

Brenda Michelson is the principal of Elemental Links an advisory & consulting practice focused on business-technology capabilities that increase business visibility and responsiveness. Follow Brenda on Twitter.

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