The Five Flavors of Alignment

Monday Dec 11th 2006 by Steve Andriole
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Focusing on one style of business-technology alignment is limited – we need the full “sampler” to be effective.

There are five alignment flavors for us to consider, but let’s remember that we don’t get to pick just one – we have to taste them all. I am going crazy talking to people about business technology alignment – people who think about alignment as conversations between planners and technologists, or meetings between marketing and database people. It’s much more than that.

Alignment plays out across five integrated flavors:

1. Strategic Alignment

2. Infrastructure Alignment

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3. Operational Alignment

4. Innovation Alignment

5. People Alignment

Strategic Alignment

Strategic alignment is what most of us think about when we hear the term “alignment.” The key is to make sure that technology investments are consistent with strategic objectives. For example, if a company decides that eBusiness will become a much more important part of the business, then it needs to make sure that its eBusiness infrastructure is secure, scalable and reliable.

This is a classic alignment test: if a company balks at the technology investments necessary to support its strategic objectives then it will fail one of the most basic alignment tests. Without a tight coupling there will be gaps, and just when a company wants to execute its strategy it may find that its technology investments won’t support the strategy.

Infrastructure Alignment

Infrastructure alignment is about seamless cost-effectiveness. Perfect infrastructure alignment happens when everything “works” behind the curtain, that performance is consistently reliable and secure.

Companies that want additional infrastructure alignment invest in infrastructure control systems like COBIT and ITIL. (I wrote about these in July in Who’s in Control?) The infrastructure must support strategic, operational and innovation alignment.

Operational Alignment

Operational alignment is about flexibility, adaptation and agility. While the applications, communications and data architectures should be reasonably defined in well governed organizations, there needs to be enough flexibility in the deployment of these capabilities to enable businesses to make the changes to their products and services they need to stay competitive.

Operational alignment is less about strategy and the anticipated need for consistency between next generation products/services and the technology necessary to develop, deliver and service them, than it is about servicing existing products and services. When lines of business need to adjust their products or services, change their reporting requirements or alter their marketing materials, they need their applications, data bases and communications to change with them. While this, of course, does not mean that they will frequently require whole new applications and databases, it does mean that applications and databases yield the right things at the right time.

Next page: Total Alignment

Innovation Alignment

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Innovation alignment exists in companies that have innovation cultures – and not all companies do (in spite of lip service to the contrary).

Perhaps the easiest opportunity for innovation alignment occurs within research and development (R&D), an area that most companies have defined as important to their futures.

Technology support for corporate R&D might focus on R&D processes, tools to enhance the R&D process, tools that contribute to innovation, and metrics to measure success/failure. There are also opportunities to exploit some new information technologies in the R&D process, such as online contests to “solve” complicated research and development problems.

Innovation alignment also requires the integration of strategic and operational alignment where new ideas are strategically viable and operationally feasible. This kind of integrative thinking is hard to achieve but when successful it can literally change the face of a company.

People Alignment

People alignment is the key ingredient to all of the alignment flavors. We need people to execute the alignment agenda.

But which people? Each of the alignment flavors requires a different set of skills and competencies. In fact, the flavors are so different that the necessary skills and competencies generally cannot be found in the same people. This has huge implications for companies seeking alignment.

If you look at the five flavors it’s easy to see how the skills and competencies required for each differ so dramatically.

Strategic alignment requires a top-down, holistic view of the business coupled by a purposeful view of technology, that is, how technology enables broad business agendas not just specific transactions. Infrastructure alignment is about the details of architectures, cost-effectiveness, reliability and security. Operational alignment requires skills in the delivery and support areas, as well as in the areas of flexibility and agility. Innovation alignment requires a great many creative skills as well as the ability to detach from day-to-day infrastructure and operational activities. People alignment requires us to examine the skills of all the professionals responsible for alignment, assess the gaps and fill them with the right people – at the right time doing the right things.

Total Alignment

Achieving total alignment is difficult. When we think about alignment – and read testimonials to alignment success – we’re usually reading about one or two alignment flavors – not the whole sampler.

Total alignment is tough because of the diverse skills necessary to achieve it; perhaps the best way to achieve it is to recognize the differences among alignment goals and pursue alignment as though it were five inter-connected processes – and then find people that understand the importance of integration.

The key – as always – is people. Without the right people pursuing integrated alignment not much progress will be made – and you may be doomed to wonder how all those servers are helping the company make money or why everyone has CRM software but very few customers that need that much attention.

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