The Changing Role of IT

Posted: June 10, 2012 in Alignment, Communication, Partnership
Tags: ,

When I started this blog more than a year ago, one of the answers I was looking for, was if and why Business/IT Alignment is so different from alignment between for example sales and operations or between business and HR. If it’s not, we could learn more from other domains. If it is, than the question is why. So far, I didn’t find a clear answer to this question. But, maybe I stumbled upon at least a possible answer to this question.

It started when I was thinking about the pros and cons of internal customer/supplier relationships. IT is often perceived as a “supplier”. And, as a result of this, the relationship between business and IT can be seen as a customer/supplier relationship. Question is, why IT is perceived as a supplier? I have read some articles of people discussing the issue of running IT as a business. Several views on this can be found, proponents and opponents. These discussions made me realize, that IT in fact is always seen (and organized) as a separate unit. A unit which is struggling to get and keep connected to the business, which in fact is called the alignment problem. It is not the organizational form, which is relevant, but the fact that it’s been considered a rather isolated unit within an enterprise. And, maybe that could be one of the main reasons behind the alignment problem. Trying to be seen as an integrated department of an enterprise, but in fact not acting as one.

In one blog was stated:  “There is no secret to running IT like a business. It simply means that the IT group must now do whatever is necessary to sell products and services on a competitive basis. While there are a few caveats to this statement, overall it is as simple as knowing your market, giving customers what they want, and doing it at a price that is competitive. This means that CIOs are going to have to think and operate more commercially, using menus of products and services that describe these services with pricing, delivery time, service levels and support options. This can be accomplished with a product and services catalog that provides information about what the individual technology offerings bring to a business unit. This catalog must be based upon direct feedback from internal customers (business units) and state what service levels are included in the offering, the fulfillment interval and support levels. Content in any specific catalog depends on the specific business requirements of a specific project. IT must also step out of the technical realm to develop and communicate performance metrics in business language.” .

Although it all sounds logical, question is, if this really helps in getting more aligned with the business. There is a lot of discussion on this topic of running IT as a business. Some nice statements from opponents are found on http://taosecurity.blogspot.nl/2011/01/it-as-business-train-wreck.html. Some quotes:

“Another unintended consequence of running IT as a business with internal customers, while less tangible, might be even more important: Defining IT’s role this way creates an arm’s-length relationship between IT and the rest of the business…”

“When IT acts as a separate, stand-alone business, the rest of the enterprise will treat it as a vendor. Other than in dysfunctional, highly political environments, business executives don’t trust vendors to the extent they trust each other…”

“When IT is integrated into the heart of the enterprise, its priorities aren’t defined by who has the budget to spend (by chargebacks). Rather, they’re defined by a company leadership team whose members have a shared purpose, who understand what the company must do to achieve that purpose, and who understand the role new technology will play…”

The discussion on how to manage IT clearly is open ended. From an alignment perspective it doesn’t help – to my opinion – to position IT as separate business, because of the negative consequences. Maybe, this is where IT differs from other departments within the enterprise. Although there is also tension between for example sales and operations, they are part of the same value chain. And HR and Finance are different from ‘business’-departments, but clearly fill in a supporting role which is not questioned.

Looking at IT, they are more or less stuck in the middle. They are often not perceived as part of the business, but IT doesn’t act as a supporting department either. So, maybe this is part of the trouble in alignment discussions. How to position IT, and how to interact with business partners?

This question is getting more and more relevant in today’s developments. IT already was struggling with their diminishing role due to the large role of outsourcing and offshoring. But, now there is the impact of consumerization and ‘bring your own device’-trends. In a recent article (source: http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9226927/The_IT_paradox_A_diminished_role_in_technology_but_greater_clout_in_the_business_) is suggested that IT should become more of an adviser to the business and provide governance over externally procured technologies.

Anyhow, it’s time to rethink your position as IT department, and this will direct how you can and should cope with the long lasting alignment issue.

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Comments
  1. Joel Bruijn says:

    Your post got me thinking about what Frank Buytendijk said about IT alignment versus “Value-Chain-Integration” in http://frankbuytendijk.blogspot.nl/2010/10/business-and-it-alignment.html

  2. Hello Frank,

    An interesting post that makes some pertinent points. The IT department is seen as a seprate entity and supplier of technology services when the organisation fails to use IT as a strategic asset.

    Whether or not the organisation outsources most of the IT service it still needs to retain a core capability. One way the IT service can change perceptions is by bridging the IT-business gap. The IT department can learn from the HR business partner model (http://martinwebster.eu/adapting-the-hr-strategic-business-partnering-model-for-information-technology/.)

    As ever,
    Martin

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