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The Business Alignment Fallacy

Don't say it, don't need it, don't do it

I did a Google search for the phrase “business aligned” recently and got more than 54,000 page matches. I thought the figure would be much higher; there’s hardly a presentation or initiative these days that doesn’t mention it in somewhere. The theme of Business Alignment is a constantly recurring one, designed to keep you on your toes in case you were thinking that IT was all about.. well.. IT.

But what is Business Alignment? Is it possible? What would it look like?

As you may have guessed from the title of this piece, I think the whole concept is a trite phrase, glibly thrown around to create a fallacious, naked, lunatic-dance for everyone caught up by it.

Put your clothes on, and let me explain.

A business that makes widgets needs enough widget-empowering software to give it a decent chance in the market against others that would seek to strip it of its widget glory. If the boys and girls in IT started creating any other kind of software, they’d be in serious trouble, and rightly so. IT is, at it’s most basic level, a business support function. Doing what the business needs - or perhaps, being ‘aligned’ - is implicit. Nobody needs to say it, or focus on it especially, because alignment is in the natural order of things.

That’s not to say IT naturally does things in the most efficient way - that takes good people, practice and experience. But efficiency isn’t the same as alignment. There are plenty of non-technical aspects to business that can be pretty inefficient. You wouldn’t want your IT aligning to that if you could help it. Because we’re human, techies can make stupid mistakes, and these should be addressed, by hiring smarter staff, training, adopting new techniques and so on. None of these are business alignment.

Perhaps alignment lies with strategy? There is, hopefully, a business strategy. It might be to double the focus on core markets, or expand into new product areas, buy up smaller widget makers, or just improve customer service. The business vision translates into a strategy (the plan) to achieve it, and eventually all the way down to a daily mission for staff to get behind.

If the business strategy is clear enough, it will help decide between two competing projects. Given option A and option B to assess, it should be possible to refer to the business strategy and say “People, we must go with option B, because it better supports our world domination strategy”. Hurrah. Everybody applauds and goes back onto the internet to decide how they will spend the enormous bonus coming their way.

IT’s involvement in this process is to build the software that option B implies. That is to say they can only do what the business asks of them. Even though they assist in the decision by profiling the budget, people, skills, etc available (i.e. portfolio management) there’s no option to go and build something that isn’t aligned.

The role of IT at the project level is, and always will be, tactical - tactically delivering against the strategic aims, yes, but essentially a reactive position.

Ah.. but.. once that development starts there’s the IT Strategy, and appropriate compliance with it, to consider. Surely all that pit-bull governance, tortuous dispensation process, claims of value-for-money and ROI isn’t for nothing. Surely we have discovered the point where business alignment must take place.

The IT strategy, and all it entails, has to align to the Business Strategy. Doesn’t it? Or else why have one?

The very first time I tried to write an IT Strategy I tried to align it to the Business Strategy. What else was I meant to do? Align to my horoscope? Jupiter is in Uranus, so we’ll adopt Oracle 10g and buy an ESB?

Except I couldn’t, because - and here’s something you already know - a business strategy is a fluid thing. No plan survives contact with the enemy and all that.

If you start the year with a value for money vision and a business strategy to efficiently make vast piles of widgets, only to discover that customers suddenly go off them, you have to adapt. Or if (to choose a topical subject) your lines of credit become hard to guarantee, you might suddenly need to work with reduced capital. Time to tweak the strategy.

And business strategies can be different every year even without market change. Sometimes it’s because management want to keep things fresh, sometimes it’s because there’s a change of management and style. Whatever. That’s their business (pardon the pun). Our business is software and all we want is to make it meaningful in whatever context we’re given.

I can’t write a strategy that dictates the direction of things that are expensive and hard to change, like tools, platforms, applications, and architecture, based on some business dude telling me that next year we’re going to leverage key-learnings in our core competencies and maximise customer value by augmenting synergy in the value chain. An IT Strategy is a seriously weighty thing to put together.

So what’s the frame of reference for the IT Strategy, if it’s not the business strategy?

Paul Graham wrote a great piece in Hackers and Painters about how the development language you chose can attract better people and improve your chances of success. He didn’t chose Lisp as the language for Viaweb because the skills were cheap, he chose it because the people that write it tend to be the smart kind you need to succeed. One database technology over another may not have a major impact, but languages and tools and architecture certainly do.

So the job of the IT Strategy isn’t to align to the business strategy. It’s to give the business people who create it as many options to change tack as possible. It’s a provider of capability. Capability equals competitive advantage when the business strategy is a good one. IT alone cannot save any business but, if it makes those reactive changes just a bit easier and quicker to do, it can have a serious impact on the likelihood the competition will get beaten to mush.

Does that make it hard to write an IT Strategy? You bet your bum it does. Trying to extract the core essence and themes of your business model is a sensitive process and as soon as you start eschewing business alignment, it’s automatically a lot harder. Nobody wants those expensive nerds taking over, but you have to seize the initiative, be proactive and step above the business plan.

When you start to hit your sweet spot though, it’s surprisingly easy to sell that type of strategy back to the business. Your capabilities can stimulate their ideas. Suddenly IT looks like a platform for opportunity and not just cost. Rather than conversations being about how hard it is to do what they want the door is open to do what they didn’t know they could have, which might even be easier.

In my experience the business prefers this to an IT department that apologetically spouts weak clichés about its desire to shadow them, instead of forging a genuine partnership, leveraging and maximising and synergising together.

Because it turns out that they’re fed up hearing about business alignment too and what they actually want is some practical concrete assistance.