One of the proposed mechanisms to improve alignment is the usage of relationship managers or liaisons. Some people think this is usefull, others think the opposite. From firsthand experience I can say that it can be usefull, but only when the role is filled in properly.

The liaison role is one of the linking mechanisms as proposed by Fonstad in the IT Engagement model. Also Luftman suggests using this role to improve Business/IT alignment. But there is criticism on these kind of roles. In his blog, Harwell Trasher puts down a strong advice not to use a Business/IT Liaison person. He found out that over time liaison people gravitate toward either the business or IT camps, and begin to take sides in disagreements. Then, the liaison will magnify the problems rather than solving them.

Although I recognize this risk, I personally think liaisons can help improving alignment between business and IT. In the right situation, with the right person and for the right period of time.

Liaison roles are usually set up when the volume of contacts between departments grows. They are formal roles designed to facilitate communication and bypass vertical communication channels. A lot of their work is carried out through informal communication of information. Problems which lead to the introduction of liaisons includes conflict between business versus IT, inadequate communication, poor understanding, no structure to prioritisation, business without control, increased pressure on systems, time wastage, insufficient requirements determination and employee demoralisation [Barry and O’Flaherty, 2003].

One of the critical characteristics of this role is its ability to remain neutral. They are supposed to facilitate both sides and work through any impasses. The role of liaisons is highly political, liaisons must “understand politics and then avoiding them”.

What’s extremely important, is that there comes a stage in every action, where the liaison must step out of the process, because he/she is no longer adding value. The liaison should facilitate both business and IT to work together, but shouldn’t get in between. So, after the initial stages of communication, his or her role will vanish. Liaisons should act somewhat reactive, sweeping up issues and promoting collaboration as they go along. Whenever possible, push back both sides (business and IT) and mediate in conflict situations.

Liaisons can help in organisations where Business/IT Alignment lacks maturity. Liaisons can help bridging the gap between the two parties and help developing communications. But, liaisons should limit themselves to facilitating. Otherwise they can get stuck in the middle, and they can hinder further collaboration by business and IT and become just another barrier. Then, they could be used for things where business and IT don’t feel like working together. In all cases, the liaison should protect their neutrality and keep the facilitating role.

Question is in which unit this liaison is organised. It could be within IT, as well as within the business. What I think is wise to do, is to select a person for this role with experience in the opposite side. If the liaison is organisationally part of IT, select someone with extensive business experience. If the liaison is part of the business, appoint someone with an IT background. In the end, a person with experience in both business and IT is ideal, but not frequently available.

References

Blog Harwell Trasher: http://blog.makingitclear.com/2010/06/23/liaison/

O’Flaherty, Brian, and Barry, Owen Harte: A Case of ‘Non Strategic’Alignment – An IT and Business Unit Liaison Role, 2003

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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

Recognize this?

The CMO Council sited 38% of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) say sales and marketing alignment and integration is a top priority. However, only 30% have a clear process or program to do something about it. With only 38% of CMOs making alignment a top priority, we can assume approximately 1 out of every 3 organizations recognize the issue but few take action. How about the other 2 out of 3? Are they not aware of the problems between sales and marketing? This article highlights common problems prohibiting sales and marketing collaboration, summarizes reasons one group thinks the other is the antagonist, and suggests solutions to narrow the divide between sales and marketing.

Unfortunately, inadequate solutions and uninformed executives have only perpetuated the problem. Sales and marketers have developed a terrible misconception of one another culminating in an environment filled with friction and dissonance. Brian Carroll, CEO of InTouch, attests that “communication breakdown affects nine out of ten companies”.

Alignment is a much wider issue than only Business and IT relations. So, couldn’t we learn more from other areas?

Source: http://www.leadliaison.com/revenue-generation-blog/sales-and-marketing-alignment/

 

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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.

Reference

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

Recently, a dutch consultancy firm  – ForceFive – published the results of a survey on business/IT alignment maturity within several companies. What I found interesting, is the scale they used to define the alignment maturity level of these companies.

Well known are the maturity levels as defined by Luftman, starting at level 1, ending at level 5. ForceFive defined also five levels, but defined them differently. The stages they define are islands, recognition, collaboration, alignment and fusion. In fact, alignment is defined here as a certain state. And, fusion is defined as the ultimate state which companies can achieve.

Companies should strive to the level, which matches their specific situation, which is not neccessarily the top level.

The five levels are:

Islands (level 1)

Two separate worlds; lacking awareness of mutual dependency between business and IT.

Recognition (level 2)

Aware of mutual dependency. Business expects IT to be flexible in realizing their demands. IT imposes architecture and standards to the business.

Collaboration (level 3)

IT is seen as ‘business enabler’ to realize business objectives. Business defines processes and IT requirements. Business and IT are convinced of their mutual added value. Customer/Supplier relationship.

Alignment (level 4)

Shared processes which combine business and IT interests. Conflicts are prevented through deliberation and compromises.

Fusion (level 5)

Difference between business and IT becomes irrelevant. IT is integral part of business processes.

Reference

De IT organisatie van de toekomst, TIEM, January 2011 (Dutch). www.forcefive.nl

Just read an article of Weiss and Anderson (2004), in which a simple model is introduced to achieve alignment. Some overlap can be recognized with other models, but it’s strong in it’s simplicity. The model – The Four C’s model – consists of four common themes, which provide a way to align business and IT.

Clear direction, which is the development of a clear strategy for the entire organization into the near and distant future. Strategies must be jointly developed. Commitment involves and requires the support of management, especially at the highest level. Mutual respect and trust must be established. Communication must begin with the clear outlining of expectations. Once there is mutual understanding of eachothers intentions and goals, parties become involved and willingly to share risks. Cross-functional integration represents the fourth C. For an organization to succeed at business/IT alignment, boundaries between functions must be intentionally blurred. Creation of a cross-functional team to create an organization-wide governance structure is needed.

In their article, Weiss and Anderson touch also another interesting point of view. In today’s business, companies include suppliers and customers in their strategy development. Organizations gain the technology and interest in using their complete value chain. Business and IT are both needed to enable these kind of networked businesses. At the same time, if these kind of networking is creating value, than it shouldn’t be so hard to enhance partnership between business and IT. It’s just an relation which has to be managed as all the other partnerships, with suppliers and customers. Understanding, clear expectations and mutual respect and trust!

Reference

Joseph W. Weiss and Don Anderson: Aligning Technology and Business Strategy: Issues & Frameworks, A field study of 15 companies, Proceedings of the 37th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2004

The final dimension of the Strategic Alignment Maturity Model of Luftman (2000) has to do with Skills. This dimension contains seven attributes.

The first attribute is not specifically about human skills, but is about the innovative entrepreneurial environment an organisation fosters (or not), and too which extend this is done. Only in parts of the organisation, or enterpise wide.

Second, locus of power, has to do with the question where and by whom IT decisions are made. The maturity level rises when decisions are made in the top of the organisation and by business and IT executives together.

The third attribute is related to the readiness of an organisation to change. This ranks between resistance till proactive and anticipated change readiness.

Fourth, one should look at the level of career crossovers. How often do business and IT people move to the other side?

The next attributes, are not in the original paper of Luftman (2000), but were part of the questionnaire. The first one (or fifth one) is about the ability and possibility for learning within an organisation. The more formal this is arranged within the company, and the more enterprisewide, the more mature the alignment will be.

Sixth, the level of personal interaction and trust is assessed. And finally, the question which neds to be answered is the capability of the organisation to attract and retain skilled staff.

With this post, all domains and underlying attributes have been named. There is not a specific attribute or dimension which is most important. All should be given equal attention. It’s also clear that many attributes are interrelated. Executing an assessment like this is usefull, because it touches a lot of the elements related to good business/IT alignment. And, as earlier touched upon, the outcomes of the assessment in itself is not the best part. It is the discussion which should follow on this, to investigate why people responded the way they did. Only then, lessons can be drawn, and improvement areas can be named.

Reference

Luftman, Jerry: Assessing Business-IT Alignment Maturity, Communications of AIS, Volume 4, Article 14, December 2000