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StrategyJul 01, 2010

Playing Nice in the Corporate Sandbox

Brad Buhl

Based on an original article by Manish Limaye

My wife and I used to joke that at home, I helped handle three-year-old problems, and at work, I helped handle three-year-old problems. In reality, much of the frustration caused by internal business issues, particularly between business and IT functions, comes down to the basics of communication and teamwork.

Planetary Alignment

Consider this: the misalignment of IT priorities and business objectives is as much the fault of the business as that of the IT function — if not more so. For years, the IT model has been saddled with the responsibility of aligning its agenda with that of the business plan. Many a business manager has uttered, “Our IT people simply don’t understand our business objectives.”

But how many business managers have actively sought out and engaged IT? Furthermore, how many business managers can clearly articulate how their project, group, and/or teams contribute to the company’s objectives? In other words, how can IT be expected to support the needs of the business if the business does not truly know what it needs? Not to mention, who really can tell which internal business division throws the best parties?

The Crazy Business Cycle

At the end of the day, the IT department is usually the one who gets a reputation for not playing nice in the sandbox. Clearly, no one can deny the difficulties of working with an insular IT department who, through years of misalignment with the business, now struggles to demonstrate its legitimacy and value to the company. And not surprisingly, that misalignment has a price. Larger business units hire their own IT support staffs. They make haphazard, knee-jerk technology decisions that benefit their own interests as opposed to those of the organization as a whole. It all happens when the business reduces its reliance on IT — because IT priorities don’t align with those of the business. And the crazy business cycle continues.

But fear not – there is hope! Before IT can begin to address the needs of the business, however, the business must clearly define its own objectives. Business unit managers must be able to explain how their function supports corporate objectives. Only then can IT become a productive participant in decisions about how information technology can enable the company to meet its objectives.

ABC…Easy as 123…

Through the realignment process, the lines of communication slowly begin to open. IT starts to understand the needs of the business — and can assess the existing application and technology infrastructure to determine how well it can support those needs. This typically results in the identification of functional and technical gaps, and the identification of projects that can fill the voids. At this point, the lines in the corporate sandbox become clearly drawn, and business owners start playing nice.

It can be very tempting for the business to start to let IT work on its own. But if success is the goal, then this can’t be allowed to happen. The company must remain actively engaged in the process of alignment — and provide input about which projects offer the potential for the highest returns or added value. Projects must have the appropriate level of sponsorship from key business leaders, and they have to be seen within the organization as legitimate.

Throughout the entire alignment process, IT begins to understand the business, and business begins to understand IT. With both organizations marching toward a common goal (to meet the company’s objectives), the process of alignment must be nurtured through mechanisms like IT governance and steering committees. Literally and figuratively, IT must be given a chair at the corporate table (and shovel in the sandbox) — where it can help transform the company. Only then can IT shed its classic form as a tactical delivery group and become a powerful strategic advisor.

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