IT Business Alignment – Why is it so hard?


Whether or not we are talking about aligning IT to the Business or Business to IT, the thought becomes – why is this so difficult to accomplish? The issue was first raised in 1977 by Ephraim McLean & John Soden in their book Strategic Planning for MIS. Since 1980 it has been a top 10 issue on the Society of Information Management’s (SIM) annual survey of the top issues facing CIOs. Since 1994, it has been either #1 or #2. This might make a good episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.”




When you have a problem that won’t go away, you need to take a step back and re-look at the problem. Are we attacking this the right way? Do we have the right tools to solve the problem? Are our fundamental assumptions about the problem correct? Do our assumptions keep changing as we get new information? Do we fully understand the problem? Are we even asking the right question? Why is it not Business to IT alignment? Is alignment even what we are looking for? Should it be convergence? Why not teamwork? Or maybe it should be cooperation? Perhaps even partnership? Maybe solving world hunger would be easier? Even taking a step back can be overwhelming.



So, let’s go back to what we say we want to achieve – IT Business alignment. It just looks so darned simple. Three parts – IT / Business / Alignment. To peel back the onion a little more, let’s look at what we mean by these three parts:



Alignment – I have discussed in previous posts alignment can be defined as a state of agreement or cooperation among persons, groups, nations, etc., with a common cause or viewpoint. Basically it means we are on the same page, we agree, see eye-to-eye, are synched, etc.


So, we want IT and Business agree and cooperate, let’s just say, to be synchronized. So far, so good.


IT – When we look at the phrase “IT Business Alignment” what do we think of when we see “IT”? The answer is, as you might expect, “it depends.” It depends on your perspective, on what your paradigm is. If you ask people who work for a technology company or in a technology department, they will likely say “Information Technology”; ask people who don’t work in these areas, and they will likely say “IT department.”


Things are starting to get tricky now.  We could be heading for some trouble here. Let’s continue.


Business – What in the world do we mean by “Business?” It can be defined many different ways. A brief summary from reveals the following definitions of business:

A commercial or industrial enterprise and the people who constitute it

The activity of providing goods and services involving financial and commercial aspects

A building or site where commercial work is carried on

An occupation, profession or trade

Something that one has to do or should do


Which definition should we use? For our purposes, let’s say it’s the activity of providing goods and services involving financial and commercial aspects.


 So, on one level, we can look at “IT Business Alignment” as:

The Information Technology utilized is synchronized with the activity of providing goods and services.


Theoretically, this looks great. Even if we look at IT as a “department,” it doesn’t look too bad:


But when we expand business it becomes more difficult. As the “activity of providing goods and services” evolved, it was structured and organized. Traditionally, this has been accomplished by the creation of those magical things called “departments.”  Now things are starting to get interesting.


In an organization, we have an IT department, but can anyone tell me where the Business department is? Other than on a university campus, or a very small business, they don’t exist. Business has become a collection of departments, and departments of departments. So when we look at aligning IT (the department) to Business (the departments) it starts to look scary:



Note: Not all possible links shown


In our traditional paradigm, with IT as a department, each one of the links to the other departments should be aligned. Each one should be synchronized with the activities of each. Maybe now we can see why it is still an issue.


What have we done to ourselves? When Frederick Taylor and Alfred Sloan set up the concepts of division of labor and the organizational structures as we know them today, IT did not exist. So, when it came along, we fit it right into our existing model. IT became another department. This arguably worked for years when IT was basically mainframes, and large, dedicated staffs and specialized personnel managed the systems. But, as technology has evolved, and grown to become an integral part of what we do each day, have we changed the way we manage IT? Sure we’ve downsized, and outsourced many of the activities that are now commodities, but the basic organizational structure has remained unchanged in most companies.


One could easily argue all we need to do is just change the organizational structure. That will solve the problem. Will it? Be careful of the “Silver Bullet.” While changing the organizational structure alone will not change the behaviors that have been embedded over the years, it can be a start toward creating better alignment. But, before we can change the organization, we have to understand what we are asking for.


So, take a step back, ask, “what does it take to achieve IT Business Alignment?” look at your structure and see what you are really asking to do. Then think about if reorganizing could help start you toward achieving better alignment.  The answer will be different for each organization, and remember, this is just one of many actions to get aligned.


Time for some thinking – something we don’t do enough of.







2 Responses to IT Business Alignment – Why is it so hard?

  1. […] has been an ongoing issue, and how our organizational structures make it very challenging (here).  We have spent so much time struggling to figure out the right approach that perhaps we have […]

  2. This old chesnut of a problem and the solution lies in 3 fundamental questions – WHAT-HOW-WHY. It’s all about breaking down communication barriers between the IT and business by speaking in a language that everyone immediately understands. WHAT needs to be achieved? HOW is this done? WHY is this important?

    The business comes first and it’s up to IT to understand what the business objectives are, then do everything they can to support them. Don’t use tools that force a technical lingo to be understood (or not) by the business else problems abound and the IT function will be perceieved as nothing more than a cost of doing business.



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