The topic of aligning what the IT organisation delivers compared with what any given business actually needs has been the source for much debate for as long as our industry has existed. IT-Business alignment is one of those topics that many speak about but few actually practice as part of a business culture. I think that part of the reason for this is that there are very few best practices that have been proven to be successful in providing a platform on which the consumers and the providers of IT service can speak in a common language to agree priorities and understand one another’s perspectives.
I have been involved in a project at Symantec for around 8 years now which, I think, makes some progress in this area. We call it INFORM and it relies on a simple methodology that attempts to provide a forum for discussion with the “IT-Business alignment” goal in mind.
The methodology (somewhat revealingly, some would say) does not start by talking about IT. It begins, instead, by focusing the participating workshop group (typically a mix of IT and business executives) on a conversation about business objectives. Of course, every business is slightly different in this regard. For some, “Cost Reduction” may be the most important priority for the coming years. For others “Expansion” or “Competitiveness” could be key. We have found that the agreement and capture of this topic is crucial to achieving the “IT-Business alignment” goal.
Next in the methodology comes the topic of risk. Not (necessarily) technology-related risk but the overarching landscape of risk that affects the business in question. In other words, “what could stop us from reaching the business objectives that we agreed in part 1 ?”. We find the this risk conversation often provides a natural segway into strategic IT topics such as Information Security and Compliance.
The thrid step of the INFORM methodology edges us into the topic of IT specifically. Namely, the levels of appetite in a business for some of the strategic IT trends and enablers that could, potentially, help to move the business in question towards its objectives. “Cloud Computing”, “Mobile Computing & BYOD”, “Green IT”.... How does the company in question feel about these topics ? What is the level of appropriateness of these, given the business objectives and the risks discussed ?
Lastly, the methodology brings into focus the way in which IT service is delivered today.... “How well do you execute against your performance/security/availability/compliance SLA’s today”. “Do SLA’s even exist ??”. This topic is often revealing, sometimes showing that the IT organisation’s perspective is 180 degrees from the business view !... An important (and sometimes painful) part of the alignment process.
Once the four phases of data capture outlined above have been completed with input from both the business and IT, analysis can begin to determine how IT can best serve its business from here on in.. Sometimes, the maturity of an IT discipline critical to the captured objectives is clearly in need of focus. On other occasions, the IT function are found to be excellent at something (in other words, heavily invested in it) that the business really doesn’t need at all.
Whatever the outcome, the process outlined here is always revealing and often provides profound insights into how the IT service provider can align itself to the business and become strategically (not just technically) important.
To look at this another way, this approach provides a very different method of selling IT. One that (at least based on feedback from our customers) is both appropriate and refreshing.