Archive for the ‘Vertical Alignment’ Category

Organizations are dynamic systems, in which all parts should be aligned to get results. Tosti and Jackson [2003] of iChangeworld Consulting wrote an interesting whitepaper on Organizational Alignment. They introduced a framework which, in my opinion, illustrates an important view on alignment.

Figure: Organizational Alignment (Tosti and Jackson, 2003)

This model describes two interdependent paths for moving from a broad statement of organizational mission and vision to specific results:

Strategic: The left-hand path emphazises what needs to be done: the strategic goals the organization will work toward; the objectives that groups and individuals must accomplish to carry out those strategies; the activities that must be performed to meet goals and objectives.
Cultural: The right-hand path emphazises how things should be done: the values that will guide people in carrying out the mission and vision; the practices which reflect those values; the specific, day-to-day behaviors which will represent the values and practices to others as people go about their work.

Organizational alignment requires compatibility between the strategic and cultural “paths”, and consistency within them. Organizations have traditionally emphazised the strategic path. Most invest considerable effort in defining strategic goals and objectives. Fewer adress the cultural path with clearly defined statements of values (Tosti and Jackson, 2003).

In Business/IT Alignment literature alignment is divided in an intellectual dimension and a social dimension. One could easily see the analogy with the strategic and cultural dimension of Tosti and Jackson. Where in Business/IT Alignment, these two dimensions are often looked at in isolation, it’s better to follow the advice of Tosti and Jackson to consider both dimensions as interdependant.


Tosti, Donald T.; and Jackson, Stephanie F.: Organizational Alignment, iChangeWorld Consulting LLC, Novato, USA, 2001-2003

I’ve adressed many models and theories regarding Business/IT Alignment. I have read lots of literature on this topic, and still, as a practitioner I did not find a single one which helped me out in daily practice. For me enough reason to see if I can reconstruct a framework which gives some practical guidance. I do not have the intention to add a new alignment model, but like to combine what I’ve seen.

Many models simplify reality. This can be useful, but oversimplified models loose their practical use. Still, I’m convinced that we can look at the real world using the proper models or frameworks. I’m not the only one who tries to bring the different views together. I have found a thesis of Vargaz Chevez (2010), who constructed the Unified Strategic Alignment Model. The following figure is from his work. Hardly readable, but it consists of many elements of the different existing theories. I regret to say, but this doesn’t help very much in (at least my) daily practice.

Figure 1 Unified Strategic Alignment Model

More usefull, is the so-called 9-cells model (Maes, 1999; Maes et al, 2000; Bon and Hoving, 2007). It offers an interesting view on the domain we’re looking at. The models divide three colomns representing business, information and technology. The three rows are in the two models a little different, but essentially they introduce an intermediairy row between the strategic and operational level.

Figure 2 Nine-Cells Model

This model can be used to  understand where we are looking at. Talking about alignment, one should try to bring all these nine cells in alignment. Many definitions see this as a static situation, where often only the strategic level is considered. But, strategies are worthless untill they are adopted by the tactical and operational level. The tactical level needs to define which projects are needed to really execute the strategy. And on an operational level, the projects need to be implemented and included in daily operations. The tactical level translates goals and preconditions of the strategic domain into concrete, realizable objectives, responsibilities, authorizations, frameworks, and guidelines for the operational domain [Bon and Hoving, 2007].

So, even if on a strategic level, business and IT appear to be aligned, this doesn’t guarentee that it will lead to success. In fact, one should be concentrating on the way the different cells are connected. And here lies the complexity of Business/IT Alignment. To make it even more realistic, we should add more cells. Most larger enterprises are organized in different units. This can be functional or divisional. This will lead to additional 9-cells connected. In the following figure, I have constructed this 3 x 3 x 3 cube, which I call the Generic Alignment Framework©.

Figure 3 Generic Alignment Framework©

This Generic Alignment Framework© is called generic, because this isn’t only applicable for Business/IT Alignment. One could replace bu 1, bu 2 and bu 3 with Sales, Marketing and Operations. Or even, put these functional departments in the place of business, information and technology. The matrix could even be larger or smaller than 3x3x3, depending on the specific organisation. Larger organisations do exist of different units which depend more or less on each other. This also depend on the operating model an organisation chooses to have [Ross, Weill and Robertson, 2006]. But, why should Business and IT be different from other entities? If this isn’t the case, we certainly could learn more on alignment by looking at alignment topics in other areas. And if the Business and IT relationship really indeed is different from the rest, how can we make these differences more explicit?

Using the framework

This framework has value in understanding the complexity of the domain of alignment. Which elements have to be taken into account when a company is looking for alignment. This model also shows the difference between the elements (whether departments or roles) and the linkages.

Many models and definitions adress the state of alignment an organisation has achieved. In fact, they take a picture of the organisation and measure if the elements are aligned at that very moment. Which, in a complex organisation, like illustrated in the framework, is a huge challenge. Anyhow, to achieve alignment, communication between the elements is required, which means that all information should pass all these linkages without any bias. That’s the process of alignment.

The most widespread theories on alignment approach this topic from a strategic point of view.  That in itself isn’t wrong, but they also restrict their theory to the strategic level. That’s wrong. Because an important problem area is excluded (or taken for granted), which is related to a proper translation of strategy into action, through the tactical level onto the operational level.

To be continued (also on page Howe To…)

Bumblebees and the flowers they pollinate have...

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In previous posts, I have already mentioned the different definitions on Business/IT-Alignment. The definition that’s most attracting to me, is the one of Benbya and McKelvey (2006):

“A continuous co-evolutionary process that reconciles top-down ‘rational designs’ and bottom-up ‘emergent processes’ of consciously and coherently interrelating all components of the Business/IS relationship at three levels of analysis (strategic, operational and individual) in order to contribute to an organization’s performance over time.”

This definition diverges from other definitions in a number of ways:

  • Alignment is a continuous process, involving continuous adjustment, rather than an event with an end point after which an organization can return to a state of equilibrium.
  • All the components of the Business infrastructure/IS relationship are taken into account; alignment is not confined to the strategic level.
  • Alignment should not be restricted to managerial processes, but includes design processes as well; while executive management is not able to determine every single aspect of the Business/IS relationship.
  • It is not necessary to strive ‘by definition’ for harmony or balance between the different elements of the Business/IS relationship, since consciously introduced and/or sustained lack of balance is the motor of many organizational innovations.

Benbya and McKelvey came up with their model, due to the fact that most existing literature is based on assumptions which hardly are found in practice. Many theories assume a structured strategy process and stable organisations and IT. IS plans are subject to change as the approval of a proposed investment is only the starting point for a continually widening gap between stated objectives and the realities of today’s changing environment. Unforeseen happenings, failing promises and human errors cannot be included even in the best-laid plans. Defining detailed strategic plans to integrate IS and business strategy (the strategic level) is important but not enough for alignment to be achieved. IS and business strategy should coevolve mutually to respond to changes in the business environment.

Their framework suggests the coevolution of IS with the organization at three levels:

Strategic Level – coevolving IS and business strategies

This cannot be achieved just by relying on top-down planning with little emphasis on the emergent nature and necessity of bottomup planning for alignment.

Operational Level – coevolving IS and Business departments

Business managers and IS planners are unable to express themselves in common language. In short, they do not understand each other’s complexities. Therefore, tightly aligned business and IS domains need continuous coordination and communication between the two poles of the duality, Business and IS. In order to achieve this, both Business and IS must form effective collaborative partnerships at all levels. Only through continuous adjustments between the two entities – Business and IS – alignment can be sustained.

Individual Level – coevolving IS infrastructure with individual users’ needs

Users do not hold the same view of themselves that IS analysts do, and they do not like to be referred to as users. They do not even think of themselves as primarily having anything to do with the computer at all. They see themselves as professionals, working with others, and using computers in support of these interactions. Within a typical firm, individuals rarely have the opportunity to choose the system they use. As users become competent in using an IS, they often see new ways of doing things and dream up new things to do with the IS. These new ideas change the organization and its perception of what is required from its IS. If these changes cannot be easily incorporated in the IS, the users become frustrated and dissatisfied with the system. The reality is, that to derive its expected benefits and remain aligned with users need, the IS and its users must continually coevolve.


Benbya, Hind, and McKelvey, Bill: Using coevolutionary and complexity theories to improve IS alignment: a multi-level approach, Journal of Information Technology, No 21, 2006

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In this post I will introduce the IT Engagement Model, developed by Nils O. Fonstad of CISR, MIT. In previous posts I already showed the importance of alignment on and between different layers in an organisation. In a study of the Center for Information Systems Research (CISR) this issue is adressed as well. Fonstad (2006) states that IT departments always struggle with the eternal dilemma how to achieve company-wide strategies while simultaneously responding to urgent requests from business units to implement dozens or even hundreds of solutions for local projects. Two different streams of research have attempted to adress this challenge.

Research on IT Governance has taken a top-down approach and specified how management allocate decisions. The other stream of research, with a more bottom-up approach, focuses on how projects can be coordinated and managed.  According to the CISR study, neither of these approaches is sufficient. Succesful approaches adress two fundamental goals – alignment between IT and the rest of the business and coordination across multiple organizational levels. In earlier post I mentioned horizontal and vertical alignment, to adress these different dimensions.

An IT engagement model has been introduced, which is defined as the system of governance mechanisms that brings together key stakeholders to ensure that projects achieve both local and company-wide objectives. This engagement model consists of three general components.

  • Company-wide IT Governance – decision rights and accountability of comapny level and business unit level stakeholders to define company-wide objectives and encourage desirable behaviour in the use of IT
  • Projectmanagement – a formalized project management process, with clear deliverables and regular well-defined checkpoints, that encourages disciplined, predicatable behaviour for project teams.
  • Linking mechanisms – processes and decision-making bodies that connect project-level activities to the overall IT governance.

The first two are well recognized. What CISR has found to be the ‘missing link’ is the third element: Linking Mechanisms. Linking mechanisms are at the heart of a company’s IT engagement model. They enable ideas to flow back and forth between company-wide IT governance and project management. Linking mechanisms ensure that high-level governance decisions are understood and implemented by project teams, so that projects help to incrementally achieve the company’s objectives and the company learns from every project.

An effective IT engagement model enables traditionally independent stakeholders to negotiate between competing demands, influence one another, learn from each other, develop trust across the company, and work collectively on achieving local and company-wide objectives. It ensures that project solutions are not developed by any single stakeholder, but rather, result from multiple stakeholders working together to resolve competing interests (e.g. tactical versus strategic, local versus enterprise-wide, new versus reuse).

All three components of the IT engagement model are important sources of mechanisms. Engagement mechanisms take the form of roles, procedures, decision-making bodies and work-groups.

Engagement Mechanisms:

Linking mechanisms can be found in three categories: business linkage, architecture linkage,  and alignment linkage. Business linkage mechanisms link projects to company- and business-level strategies. Architecture linkage mechanisms link projects to enterprise and business unit architectures. Alignment linkage mechanisms link IT with the rest of the business, particularly at the business unit level. There are all kind of mechanisms possible. In the enclosed figures, some of the most prominent are shown.

CISR found out that firms with a stronger level of alignment distinguished themselves by engaging IT and non-IT stakeholders in three areas:

  1. Establishing and maintaining a daily level of conversation between IT and non-IT peers
  2. Ensuring that different projects link to corporate goals and shared resources, and
  3. Asessing and learning from project performance.

These firms had a key mechanism in each of these three areas. These were:

  1. Business-IT relationship managers:  A business-IT relationship manager is a formal role in which an individual engages with IT and a specified part of the business.
  2. Program Management Office: this typically consist of a central group that coordinates resources across projects, ensuring they collectively contribute to corporate level objectives.
  3. Post-implementation Reviews: PIRs typically consist of a group that essesses a project’s key targets and deliverables at the conclusion of a project or project cycle.

In following posts, I will dive deeper in the topic of IT engagement in relation to Alignment.



Fonstad, Nils, and Robertson, David: Engaging for Change: An Overview of the IT Engagement Model, CISR Research Briefing, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), March 2005.

Fonstad, Nils, and Robertson, David: Transforming a company, Project by Project: The IT Engagement Model, CISR Working Paper 363, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), September 2006.

Fonstad, Nils Olaya: Engaging Matters: Enhancing Alignment with Governance Mechanisms, CISR Research Briefing, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), December 2006.

Alignment is expected to improve business performance, by aligning Business and IT Strategy. But, that’s not enough. According to Boar [1994, in Grant, 2003], effective alignment is predicated on the combination of prescient planning and the effective execution of those plans. The execution of a strategy is almost always realized via the tactical and operational levels of an organization. This means, that alignment must be realized, not only horizontally, but also vertically.

One definition on these two types of organizational alignment – vertical and horizontal – is found in [Kathuria et al, 2007]. Vertical alignment refers to the configuration of strategies, objectives, action plans, and decisions throughout the various levels of the organization. Horizontal alignment refers to coordination of efforts across the organization and is primarily relevant to the lower levels in the strategy hierarchy.

Alignment on different organizational levels

While IT-business alignment at the strategic level has been extensively studied (Chan and Reich 2007), there has been little study of how IT and business can align at the tactical level.

Tactical IT-business alignment is necessary for making sure that IT projects are implemented on time and the implemented applications deliver the planned and desired business benefits. Alignment at the operational or tactical level is required for ensuring that planned applications are successfully implemented, maintained and used, that applications and systems irrelevant to the business plan are not implemented, and that implemented IT delivers envisaged business benefits [Tarafdar and Qrunfleh, 2009].

The importance of alignment on a operational level is also adressed by Guldentops in [Grembergen et al, 2004]. He makes a distinction between vertical and horizontal alignment. Vertical alignment is primarily driven by repeatedly communicating an integrated Business and IT strategy down into the organisation, and translating it at each organisational layer into the language, responsibilities, values and challenges at that level. Horizontal alignment is primarily driven by cooperation between Business and IT on integrating the strategy, on developing and agreeing on performance measures and on sharing responsibilities.

Benbya and McKelvey came up with a model which highlights the relevance of analysing the relationship between Business and IT (Horizontal Alignment) but also the need to reconcile the views at different levels of analysis (Vertical Alignment). This model is shown in the enclosed.  Further, they redefine alignment as follows: “Alignment is a continous coevulutionary process that reconciles top-down ‘rational designs’ and bottom-up ‘emergent processes’ of consiously and coherently interrelating all components of Business/IS relationships at three levels of analysis (strategic, operational and individual) in order to contribute to an organisation’s performance over time”. [Benbya and McKelvey, 2006].


Coevolutionary IS Alignment [Benbya and McKelvey, 2006]

Gutierrez et al [2008] confirm the need for expanding research to the tactical and operational level. Based on findings from their literature review they state:

  1. Business-IS alignment and assessment approaches are mainly focused on the strategic level
  2. There is a lack of connection between strategies and IT projects implementation.


Benbya, Hind, and McKelvey, Bill: Using coevolutionary and complexity theories to improve IS alignment: a multi-level approach, Journal of Information Technology, No 21, 2006

Chan, Yolande E and Reich, Blaize Horner: IT Alignment: what have we learned, Journal of Information Technology (2007) 22, 2007

Grembergen, Wim van, and Haes, Steven de, and Guldentops, Erik: Structures, Processes and Relational Mechanisms for IT Governance, Idea Group, 2004.

Grant. Gerarld G.: Strategic Alignment and Enterprise Systems Implementation: the case of Metalco, Journal of Information Technology, No 18, September 2003

Gutierrez, Anabel, and Orozco, Jorge, and Mylonadis, Charalampos, and Serrano, Alan: Business-IS alignment: assessment process to align IT projects with business strategy, AMCIS 2008 Proceedings, 2008.

Kathuria, Ravi, and Joshi, Makeshkumar, P., and Porth, Stephen J.: Organizational alignment and performance: past, present and future, Management Decision, Vol. 45 No 3, 2007.

Tarafdar, Monideepa, and Qrunfleh, Sufian: IT-Business Aligment: A Two-Level Analysis, Information Systems Management, No 26, 2009