Each year, a New Zealand media organisation publishes the MIS Top 100, a 'state of the nation' overview of information technology and IT management procedures in the country's largest organisations. And each year IT managers and chief information officers (CIOs) reiterate the importance of tying IT and business strategy tightly together.
Mike Harte, director of IT services for the University of Otago, says the university recently completed a strategic planning process which requires IT management to better understand business needs and closer align these to IT strategy.
"We need to understand what the organisation's needs are going forward and what it needs in terms of IT governance and leadership--that is where we feel we can add value," says Harte.
He says questions being asked include whether the university has the appropriate advisory bodies, input groups and access to customer responses to help align business and IT, and how IT can become more customer driven. A further focus is IT organisational structure--the customer's needs and wants, and any obstacles to delivery. Harte says there are also ongoing challenges around service management, including IT support, delivery, capacity and prioritisation.
"IT management is therefore seeking greater involvement of senior management in prioritisation of IT work," he says.
Why is IT and business alignment so important? Consider the IT executive who lobbies hard for funding for a new software system designed to gather more intelligence about the behaviours of customers and potential customers. If IT strategy is executed in isolation to business strategy, funding will probably be awarded to the IT 'department' which will then get on with developing and implementing the new system.
However, once the system becomes available the business may find it doesn't gather the right information--perhaps it tells sales and marketing managers something they already know, or something new but in not enough detail. Alternatively, it may ask all the right questions, but because staff don't consider it important they don't use the system correctly.
Suddenly, an IT investment that cost maybe $500,000 (and ongoing costs to maintain) ends up delivering the business nothing at all, or a little at best. The IT 'department' is frustrated, senior managers are annoyed and disappointed, and staff scornful of, or oblivious to, the drama.
Here's another example: an IT team plans out a comprehensive data security solution in order to protect an organisation's intellectual assets. The solution, which involves the purchase of software, hardware and consultant time, also relies on a change in the way people within the organisation work. Certain policies and procedures have to be followed, and staff are required to use specific technologies--say a mobile device with a particular operating system--to standardise the IT operational environment of the business and make it easier to secure.
Problem is managers at the top want to use their mobile device of choice and consider themselves above following the new security policies.
Result: compromised data security which all the expensive technologies in the world won't be able to fix.
The obvious answer to these problems and others like them is to ensure IT strategy is well enmeshed with business strategy so that IT specialists know exactly what business goals they are attempting to meet, and business managers know and agree on which IT projects are critical and what part they have to play in ensuring each project's success.
If this sounds like common sense, a surprising number of IT executives say they are still asked to launch new IT projects at the whim of a senior business manager who has "read something" about a new technology or been made nervous by the perception that "everyone is doing it".
Conversely, the IT executive may want to trial or 'play' with new technologies and strategies that the business manager isn't sure of, doesn't completely understand, and for which they can see little business benefit. …