Oh I See! Getting CIOs to view their jobs from a different angle

May 18 2010   1:38AM GMT

What enables Business-IT alignment (BITA)?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Recently, an international event management company approached me to conduct a workshop on Business-IT Alignment. It made me wonder whether CIOs are really interested in one more presentation on this subject unless these CIOs lived off another planet (or have just been born), and needed to be seasoned with a dose of the much discussed subject. I think, maybe apart from the subject of CIO reporting into the CFO/CEO as well as what next for the CIO (role of the CIO), the most oft discussed topic in the IT industry is definitely IT’s alignment to business.

No event or seminar is ever complete without a reference to the wonderful BITA. Most presentations assume that BITA is indeed an issue for CIOs, and the CIO requires help. In fact, many vendors and consultants project their products or solutions as the key ingredients towards achieving BITA. Now I can’t claim to be an expert on this hallowed subject, but have had my share of contributing to the discussion based on some experience and observation. Based on these, I have a hypothesis on what enables BITA, and where it is a challenge.

Let me first list out the standard assumptions (or ‘Conditions Apply’). A CIO understands the business, and is able to conduct a dialogue where he is understood across the organizational layers. He has good verbal as well as written communication skills, and is able to use these in internal and external meetings. He has the confidence required to debate a business or IT issue without getting so frustrated that others do not understand him. He has a reasonable track record of creating value from projects undertaken which meet (or exceed) expectations most of the time. He has a good network of vendors and partners who provide the CIO with technology advisory based on the domain. Finally, he is a good leader of people, as well as able to motivate and lead large cross-functional teams.

As I wrote the above paragraph, I wondered—if a CIO has all the skills listed above, can he still be challenged with BITA? Many might say yes, that is, if he did not report to the CEO. So let’s assume that a CIO does not report to the CFO. Will all these factors contribute to BITA? My analysis indicates a high probability of success, but I will still give it an even chance, i.e. 5/10 for the combination to lead to BITA. Have we not considered all factors? One might argue that if the CEO is technology friendly, the probability would go up to 6/10. So what can nudge the figure higher to 8/10 or 9/10 ?

My ‘Oh I See’ moment happened in a chance conversation with a CFO. When is an enterprise willing to invest in new initiatives? When are budgets relatively easier to get? When do justifications not get into the realm of fiction? The simple answer is that when a company is profitable. Not just simple profitable, but with good cash flow and available money. If the company is meeting analyst or shareholder expectations, is growing faster than the industry, and has higher margins than competitors, it’s not possible to deny BITA. So every opportunity gets the budget, as well as every employee is charged and amenable to change, as they all understand the dimensions contributing to success.

Unprofitable or marginally profitable companies always struggle to cut costs, reduce (or defer) new projects, and challenge every investment, looking for the lowest cost option. All these challenge the CIO, and keep the focus on business as usual rather than innovation. There will be exceptions to this too, but then they will be the 1/10 or 2/10 driven by the force of the leader or CIO, as compared to the higher propensity of success for a profitable company.

CIOs in business roles or add-on responsibilities are likely to have higher appreciation of the hypothesis. The new normal post 2009’s slowdown may have contributed to a shift in a few cases—in profitable as well as profit-challenged companies—based on the role played by the CIO during difficult times. If the CIO was a key player, the alignment pendulum would have shifted right, if he was not, then it may have shifted left.

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