Most research on alignment between business and IT has attempted to reduce its complexity to allow investigation of simple, direct cause and effect relationships. Still, alignment remains a top-concern. Maybe the way we look at it, isn’t the right way. Concentrating on one aspect of alignment at the expense of other dimensions is an option to reduce complexity. Complexity can be reduced further, by adopting the assumption that strategies are developed in a formal planning process and implemented as intended. However, this is rarely true in daily practice. Therefore, definitions of alignment are concerned with an idealised future that cannot accomodate any deviation. Secondly, these definitions are only concerned with what happens at an executive level and totally ignore events at an operational level.

Co-evolutionary theory provides a promising alternative, ambracing complexity, and capturing the messy nature of alignment in practice. I’ve introduced this vision already in the previous post. Campbell and Peppard developed a model based on co-evolutionary theory and complexity theory. See the enclosed figure. This blog isn’t suited to explain this model, but if you want to read more, read the paper on  http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/media/ISRC/Coevolution%20of%20Strategic%20Alignment.pdf.

Some points are interesting though, which I would like to share. The core concern of IS managers in their study was the difference between espoused business strategies and those they could see implemented by their managerial peers in the business. IS manager at an operational level tend to support the actions of their business peers, not the strategies contained within the plans, which are normally difficult to understand and implement at an opearational level. Many participants in the research indicated that it is the relationship and collaboration that provides alignment, not strategic plans.

The data from this study indicated that both business and IS managers within an organisation ‘learn’ to communicate, trust each other, develop a shared system of meaning and shared domain knowledge and then to collaborate. That is, their capabilities co-evolve. The opposite is just as possible. They may make an unconscious decision not to collaborate. In either case the deviance amplification behaviour of positive feedback loops within the alignment system reinforce the situation.

Another intersting point is that there is a difference between trust between two people and trust between groups of people that is rarely explored in the literature. They found that there is a direct relationship between inter-organisational trust and performance. If intergroup trust exists then it is more likely that business and IS groups will collaborate to discover new ways in which existing technology can be used. They will tend to solve mutual problems rather than remain remote from each other. At the same time the trust will mitigate the effects of an occasional poor project performance. Trust between individuals had little direct impact on performance. It appears that individual trust is important during the development of group trust but does not have a direct impact on performance.

An interesting finding related to this, found in another study (Campbell, Kay and Avison, 2005), was that some of the organizations which have been studied had a culture that did not encourage communication or collaboration between the business and IS functions, nor between the business units themselves. In fact the organizational cultures encouraged competition and conflict between departments and personnel rather than collaboration. The lack of communication means that the development of trust is severely impeded. This, then, affects the development of shared domain knowledge which, in turn, affects long term strategic alignment.

It is now clear that both IS and business managers must develop a shared system of meaning, shared domain knowledge and then apply these skills as they collaborate to resolve common problems and issues. And not only on a strategic level, but maybe mroe important, also on a tactical and operational level.

Reference

Capmbell, Dr. Bruce, and Peppard, Prof Joe: The Co-Evolution of Business/Information Systems Strategic Alignment: An Exploratory Study.

Campbell, Bruce, Kay, Robert, and Avison, David: Strategic Alignment: A Practitioner’s Perspective, International Journal of Enterpise Management, Vol 18, No 6, 2005. http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/research/bitstream/handle/10453/5762/2005003284.pdf?sequence=1

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