Summary: For over a decade now, the “IT/business alignment” concept has been a top priority for business leaders…and with good reason. Technology impacts your business more today than ever in the past. You absolutely need your IT department aligned with business objectives. Unfortunately, many businesses still struggle in this area. Why? In this article, we explore a few common problems and ways to get around them.
Yet, despite understanding the importance of IT/business alignment…it’s still an issue in many companies.
What stumbling blocks stand in the way? Why–after all of these years–do companies still struggle to align their IT departments with the business? And perhaps more importantly: How can companies remove these stumbling blocks?
Today, let’s answer these questions. Here are 5 common IT/business alignment stumbling blocks, along with tips to avoid each one.
1. Poor communication
“Part of this problem comes down to poor communication and lack of understanding the other person’s viewpoint,” says Jason Treu, Executive Coach at Jason Treu Executive Coaching. “When things break down, it means you have a poor foundation and process to communicate.”
It’s no secret: Poor communication is the most common stumbling block of IT/business alignment. If this problem is so common, why does it still occur? This happens for a couple of reasons.
First, the business users and the IT department often approach problems from different viewpoints. The business users focus on the business results while IT focuses on the technology. When you’re approaching a problem from two separate viewpoints, is there any wonder there’s a communication gap?
Secondly, IT and the business are often located in different places. The IT department might be on a different floor in the building, or in a different building entirely. When both sides don’t even interact on a daily basis, is there any wonder there’s a communication gap?
How can you address this problem? Make communication a priority. As Treu explains below, it starts with understanding each side.
“Leaders who are trying to collaborate need to understand:
1) What are your goals? What are your challenges? How can we help each other reach them?
2) How do you like to communicate? Email? Phone? Are you a detailed person? Only want high-level information?
3) What are pet peeves?
4) What problems have you had in the past working with IT or business unit?
5) What can I do to make working together much more effective and efficient?
Also, monthly they should do check-ins to resolve any conflicts. I believe truth-telling is critical for success. Both parties should be asking this hard question:
On a scale of 1-10, one being poor and ten being extraordinary, how would you rate our relationship? Why do you think that number? What can I do to move that closer to a 10?
If people think you care, and you are trying to help them, they are much communicative, supportive, and helpful. They also are much more willing to resolve conflicts and compromise. That’s all part of an effective IT/Business relationship, especially when you have someone who is more technical versus someone more business-oriented.”
2. IT is perceived as a budget line-item
They say that “perception is reality”, but that can be detrimental to IT departments. In many companies, business leaders perceive the IT department as a cost. They perceive IT as not being a true part of the business.
“The challenge that many organizations face is the the IT area is considered a large budget line-item, rather than an area that really drives business growth,” says Briana Brownell, Founder and CEO of PureStrategy.ai. “Coupled with this, the IT group is generally relatively far from customers and for that reason they are removed from the immediate needs of the business.”
The problem is, this perception can damage your company. After all, we’re living in an era where technology is more important than ever. Treating your IT department as a second-class citizen greatly limits your ability to capitalize on technology.
What can you do about it? Fixing this problem requires work on a couple of fronts. First, business leaders must change their perception of the IT department (which is easier said than done). They must give IT business objectives, which is explained more in the next point.
Secondly, IT must take steps to improve its reputation. Create clear processes. Look for ways to provide business value. Petition business leaders for a seat at the table, if that’s not in place already. In short: Don’t wait around for the business to change their perception of the IT department. Take steps that force them to view IT in a different way.
3. Mis-aligned KPIs
This problem stems from the last one, but is all too common across the business world. When IT isn’t viewed as a business equal, they aren’t measured in the same way. Very often, they aren’t even measured at all.
“One stumbling block is a mis-alignment of KPIs,” says Shai Shandil, Founder and CEO of softsolutions. “While my operations, finance, marketing, sales counterparts had strict KPI’s, I was given none to speak of. Sounds like a dream, right? It was, but the underlying reason was that IT was not given enough credibility to achieve KPIs!”
One way to better align IT and the business: Give IT measurable objectives. Give them business objectives. This does a couple of things: It forces IT to focus their efforts on a specific goal, and forces business leaders to see IT in a different light. As explained below, getting clear KPIs from business leaders can be a challenge, but improves the IT department (and the business) dramatically.
“This was one of the weirdest conversations I have ever had with a superior,” says Shandil. “Basically it went like this: “Listen, we want more responsibility, we want it to be tracked and we want part of our pay to be at risk of not making our numbers”. Surprisingly, it took a lot of convincing. I found that the key here was that many “business people” think that IT is complex and complicated (we use jargon and try to bamboozle people way too much). To complicated, in fact, to even put performance indicators around progress. But at the end of the day, I was able to create a set of KPIs for my department that were mostly poached from other departments! Lesson: tech is just another department, if we don’t hold them accountable like all the rest, they will never progress.”
4. Lack of perspective
In the world of psychology, there’s an interesting phenomenon known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” In short, it states that the less someone knows about a subject, the more they think they know.
It makes sense if you think about it. When you don’t know much about a subject, you also underestimate how much there is to know about that subject. The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. The problem is, most people don’t take the time to really learn things they don’t know much about. So, they remain (unjustly) confident in their limited knowledge.
Why am I explaining this concept? Because it’s a major stumbling block in IT/Business alignment.
The business users don’t understand much about the IT department’s job, and vice versa. As a result, both sides make assumptions about the other. The business assumes that IT moves slowly on purpose. The IT department assumes that the business users ask for too much.
How can you address this issue? Walk a mile in their shoes. The business needs to understand the IT department’s job, and the IT department must understand the business. As explained below, job shadowing is a great way to overcome this stumbling block.
“What it requires is job shadowing from high-level officers all the way down,” explains Cody Swann, CEO of Gunner Technology. “A sys admin needs to see that business decisions need to get made now and let “stuff” sort itself out later. The COO needs to see how letting stuff sort itself out later can be a major security vulnerability. Each side needs to understand the complexities, tradeoffs and necessities the other one faces.”
Technology can hinder IT/Business alignment in a couple of ways.
First, a lack of modern technology can create a stumbling block. Tied to outdated enterprise software or applications, the IT department focuses most of its time and energy keeping the lights on. The maintenance requirements and inflexibility of the old system handcuffs the IT department, keeping them from providing the business with modern solutions.
Second, confusing technology can drive a wedge in between IT and the business. Oftentimes, IT delivers technology with little input from the business. This leads to “Shadow IT”, as end users bypass the technology for third-party solutions.
“The second class of obstacles is, ironically, the technologies themselves. Designed, built, and largely implemented by technically focused people, many if not most business IT solutions have historically done little to engage, support, or empower non-technical users,” says Michael Dortch, Founder, Principal Analyst, and Managing Editor of DortchOnIT.com. “The combination of off-putting technologies and IT teams with limited social skills or appreciation of their value has led to more than one instance of IT teams being branded with sobriquets such as ‘Sales Prevention Department’.”
What can you do about this? We’re living in the age of self-service. Software has advanced to the point where non-technical users can create their own basic reports and applications without the IT department’s intervention. When armed with the right development tools, both sides get what they want: End users get to create their own solutions quickly, while the IT department can still control the data and user access.
These are just a few of the most common stumbling blocks for IT/business alignment, but the list could be much longer. Would you like to add to this list? Feel free to comment below!