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22 March 2005

Align IT to people, not people to IT

By Andrew Clifford

Alignment of IT and business is misunderstood. To achieve alignment, businesses should fit IT around their organisational structures, and avoid enterprise IT systems that cut across them.

"Alignment of IT and the business" is often quoted as the number one priority for IT Directors.

At a high level, alignment means that IT is going in the same direction as the rest of the business: IT strategy, plans and spending decisions reflect the overall strategy, plans and spending decisions of the organisation.

But this doesn't explain how to achieve alignment.

In many organisations, the desire for alignment has lead to the adoption of an enterprise IT mindset. This says that IT shouldn't just be an ad hoc collection of systems that have evolved over the years. IT should be based on a systematic understanding of business processes and information flows. IT should define, justify and plan enterprise-wide systems that cut across the inefficiencies of the current organisation, and change it for the better.

The broader business does not understand this systematic approach. The broader business is built on commercial and political considerations not shown in enterprise IT models. Enterprise IT is talking a different language, and undermines the very alignment it tries to achieve.

IT needs to align around something that is relevant and understandable to the broader business.

The best alignment comes from understanding people. People are social animals. They identify with and form an allegiance to the people they work with, their team and their department.

This is the key to alignment. IT systems should be structured to reflect the organisational structure, and IT plans and spending should be structured to reflect the plans and spending of the different organisational groups.

This is not new. We are used to the idea of departmental systems.

The problem is that structuring the IT systems around the organisation is heresy to enterprise IT thinking. Enterprise IT thinking claims it just automates existing processes, perpetuating the inefficiencies. Enterprise IT dictates that it is the job of IT systems to optimise and correct the inefficiencies of the human organisation, that people need to fit around the IT.

In the end, the human organisation always wins its battles against IT. Cross-departmental projects are beset with problems as they attempt to overcome the organisation's resistance to change. There are very few successful enterprise-wide systems. The organisational structure has evolved as it is for good historical, operational and political reasons, all of which are much stronger than the need for a new IT system.

The success of Microsoft Excel demonstrates how IT works best when it is aligned around the people. Many businesses are effectively run from spreadsheets completely outside the official IT structures. The use of Excel mirrors the organisation. Excel is truly aligned, and people like it because it reflects their world of team and department identity and allegiance.

The real alignment challenge for IT is to let go of the enterprise IT mindset. IT must learn to be a competent servant, providing efficiency and capability within the strategy, plans and spending constraints of the organisation, and not campaign for enterprise-wide solutions that cut across it.

Next: Avoid impossible unstoppable projects

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