How 3 savvy IT leaders are building IT-business alignment

Whether you call it "alignment", "integration" or something else, IT's role in the business continues to grow under savvy CIOs

By , ITworld |  IT Management, Trusted Voices

IT-business alignment has been a hot topic for years, and it's never been more important. What it's called, and how it's achieved is often debated, but the end game is still the same - to build a stronger, more innovative and ruthlessly competitive organization.

Let me state up front that this alignment business is a two-way street. The business side must continue to step up, and better define business goals, and priorities to help IT make alignment happen, and a great many organizations already do that. But IT has also made considerable headway when it comes to aligning with the business. In fact, 60% of CIOs who participated in the 2012 State of the CIO research by CIO magazine, said aligning IT initiatives with business goals takes a majority of their time and focus.

So just how are savvy IT Leaders moving the needle in their relationships with the business?

Three CIOs share what alignment looks like in their organizations today, and how they're building even stronger partnerships. We asked three questions:

  • What does IT-business alignment look like in your organization?

  • How can IT infiltrate the business, and become less siloed?

  • What's the one question about IT-business alignment IT Leaders don't ask, but should?

Here's what they said.


Steve Snyder, CIO, Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (See profile)

What does IT-business alignment look like in your organization?

At the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority (MCCA) we have a very tightly coupled business-to-IT alignment. Since our business relies so heavily on IT to deliver services to our clientele and IT is one of the core services we sell to our clients, we must be very closely tied to the business units. To facilitate this, we have developed systems that enable the workforce to decouple from the desktop using mobile technology, providing better and timelier service to our clientele whether internal or external. This has brought technology out of the closet and into the hands of the service providers, staff and management. It has the additional benefit of increasing the personalization of our service teams. We have developed a suite of solutions that provide our clients a lens into our service delivery process allowing them a level of comfort in the typically high stress, non-standard show production environment.

Since we are in the business of selling convention space out as far as 15 or more years into the future, IT also gets involved in the process of selling the client on the mindset that: “We will continue to invest in our facilities, their infrastructure and most importantly the personnel to run them.” It is very rewarding when I am able to walk someone through one of our MCCA facilities and talk about what was, what is and what will be.

From a strategic standpoint (and coupling IT with marketing), one of our core competitive advantages has been an IT service that acts as a loss leader—wi-fi, which typically comes at a cost in other convention centers. In 2005, the MCCA decided to provide it to our attendees for free. This boosted our competitive edge over other facilities and promoted our mission of being the most technologically advanced facility in the world. Our team saw usage rates rise from 1-2% to 50-70% depending on the show demographic.

How do you infiltrate the business?

We build teams consisting of stakeholders and MCCA team members that are not typically part of the IT team, don’t have a vested interest in IT, might be excited about IT, might be a rising star in another department, or have an interest in doing business better or fixing a broken business process. We do this with the blessing of the board, Executive Director, Senior Management and Mid Management.

Additionally, we expose talented individuals to processes that they might not normally see in their daily work. They start thinking outside of the box and outside of the cubicle. The pain points are around filtering the huge list of good ideas into a manageable list of ideas that we can execute against and develop great things from. When these wins occur we bring the entire team into the board meeting to listen to the presentation and board response.

Throughout the scoping of IT projects (actually business projects with huge IT needs) the users developed a master wish list for the system. The stakeholders then prioritized the master wish list of project features and finalized the draft scope. The stakeholders then met with the user teams to discuss the scoping/de-scoping exercise. The users made a case for any excluded features they were passionate about before the draft list went out for pricing. (It is important to note that we do all software development on a fixed price bid. If there are additions to scope after the scope is agreed to, something else has to be eliminated. We only do zero-cost change orders (This really makes for some lively meetings mid-project). This approach gets us over one huge hurdle —end user buy-in. Additionally, since the users are the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) on the system, it's expected functionality, and nuances. They are also the best people to train staff on the system. With this, the IT staff no longer has to understand a business unit’s process and try to train a new employee in an area that is foreign to him.

What's the one question about IT-business alignment IT leaders should ask, but don't?

How can I/we make it easier for the business units to do business? Has IT become a roadblock -- or is the IT team the pit crew honed to perfection that gets the car onto the track for a win?



Larry Bonfante, CIO, United States Tennis Association (See profile)

What does IT-business alignment look like in your organization?

We don't have IT-Business alignment; we have IT-Business integration! IT is woven into the very fabric of the businesses we support. Our people live with, eat with, and breathe the air of their partners in the business. We are part of the business teams that develop strategy, make decisions, and plan projects.

How do you infiltrate the business?

Work to become a trusted partner. Add value in small ways, and you will be invited to participate more strategically until you simply are seen as part of the business. You can add value in small ways by, say, getting the CMO a new iPad to test; Turn the CFO onto a new public service offering that has the potential to cut costs; Proactively increase the CEO's email store when you see it is getting close to its limit.

You can't "force" this. You can only work to be seen as a partner who adds value, and allow the relationship to evolve to the point where business leaders can't imagine doing anything without your direct and proactive involvement.

What's the one question about IT-business alignment IT leaders should ask, but don't?

The whole concept of IT-business alignment perpetuates the problem! We must stop thinking of ourselves as separate and discrete from the business and act like a part of the business. We must speak, act, dress, and think like business executives, and not like aliens trying to inhabit a foreign world. If your business leaders are not inviting you to actively participate in the process you must ask yourself what are you doing wrong? Many times we blame our colleagues in the business for not understanding the value we bring. Well communicating and marketing that value are 100% our responsibility. If you're not integrated into the business, look in the mirror and see what you can do to change that dynamic. Some ways to communicate IT's value to the rest of the business include:

  • Monthly IT updates that highlight major initiatives, and the impact to the business's bottom line
  • Quarterly Board presentations that highlight the return on investment of technology projects
  • Trade shows to allow key stakeholders to "kick the tires” on new technologies and solutions


Dave Corchado, CIO, iCrossing, Inc. (See profile)

What does IT-business alignment look like in your organization?

Our internal technology teams develop the applications that run our business, but our clients don't pay for our software – they pay for our services. Thus our product offering must be aligned with the services we deliver to clients. As a result, Product Development at iCrossing is a tag-team effort done by pairing IT groups with our Search, Analytics, and Social Media teams.

How do you infiltrate the business?

Our business leads help guide the strategy of every product we build. As the primary users of the tool, it shouldn't be any other way. To initially form this model, we created our own tightly integrated spin on the Agile development methodology. The nature of the Agile methodology has been a tremendous boon to our collaboration across disparate teams. From a very high level, we hold iteration planning meetings (IPM) that pair software development teams with business unit leaders. Any IPM must consist of a senior business lead, a software engineer, and a technical director who also acts as both a PM and final approver; no decision for our software will be made outside this core group. All application features are prioritized and turned into user stories. The features are further broken out into weekly change cycles. New features not previously discussed are done in the form of a trade-off by the business.

Our business leaders are happy to have their teams involved. They get to shape the direction of the tools their teams are using everyday. Their feedback is critical to get these tools right and stay ahead of the important trends that are shaping our services. However, one challenge within this model is that it can be difficult to look across all products holistically. You can counter this by having a senior technologist maintain the overarching strategy and keep it all tied together.

Another challenge: Before this model can be implemented, you must convince your business leads that they have “skin in the game.” Most discipline leaders want to be involved in the things that affect them. To share in that responsibility, you have to be willing to step back and hand someone else the controls. And be willing to share in your success. It can be a very difficult thing for many CIOs and CTOs to do.

What's the one question about IT-business alignment IT leaders should ask, but don't?

Does the application have enough of a material impact on the business to get the discipline leaders involved? Will it affect the bottom line? If the application is considered a commodity, don't expect business leaders to take time out of their schedules to be involved in its development.

Snyder, Bonfante and Corchado are all members of the CIO Executive Council, a global peer advisory service and professional association of more than 500 CIOs, founded by CIO's publisher. To learn more, visit council.cio.com

 

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