The Secret to IT Business Alignment

Get the priorities right!


In my interviews of CIOs, they have told me that connecting what IT is doing to business strategy remains their highest priority, even above things like improving technical orchestration and overall process excellence. Being a CIO today is clearly more about business alignment than technology alignment. One CIO I spoke with recently said that this means that “CIOs and their teams need to understand their firm’s business problems almost as well as they understand their implementation of information technology.” I couldn’t agree more!

Several years ago, a technology magazine asked how could alignment be still be such a big priority for CIOs. I asked a CIO about this recently, and he bluntly answered this by saying, “CIOs screwed up a golden opportunity to align 10 years ago.” He explained that they had clawed their way to the table and successfully separated themselves from the CFO. However, once they were at the table, they did not change their game. And, one by one, they are now being returned to the CFO to manage.

So where is the alignment needed?

Most CIOs agree that they need to focus most intently on aligning with the line of business. “While CEOs can have a strategic plan, they do not operationalize it into strategic objectives. It filters down and becomes operationalized by the line of business.” However, CEOs and CIOs need to connect what IT is doing better to their business strategy. This is exciting because it is a new window of opportunity for the CIO to get IT’s priorities right and thereby, secure a better relationship with their CEO. This matters because the CIOs that I am talking to see a strong CEO relationship as being critical to having IT viewed as a strategic business unit.

Additional there is one more important aspect of the CEO and CIO relationship. In building a successful partnership with the CEO, CIOs tell me the conversation absolutely has to be “about value versus technology.” They stress that CIOs will lose if the discussion continues to be about technology and not even get invited to executive meetings. To prevent this from happening, CIOs need to partner with their CEO and other business leaders on the topics that are relevant to them. IT’s role needs to be about improving line of business alignment and connecting what IT is doing better to business strategy.

Where do CEOs seek CIO Alignment and Help?

So what initiatives will get the CIO closer to their CEO? There is great news here. Alan Murray just got to ask Fortune 500 CEOs what are their company’s greatest challenges. And the top three items turn out to be areas where CIO leadership can play a pivotal role. Let’s review each of these and look at what CIOs can do to help their CEOs respond to each challenge.

1) The rapid pace of technology change. According to Alan Murray, CEOs “clearly recognize that new technologies are going to radically change the way they do business.” In fact 94% said their companies will change even more in the next five years than they did in the past five years. CEOs correctly see surviving the new technology revolution as requiring long term thinking and investment. This is a perfect area for the CIO - with business leaders in support - to lead the game plan. CIOs should take heed of what Steven Krupp has to say in Winning the Long Game, “in a more uncertain world, successful leadership is less about a detailed plan than about a long-term approach built around capabilities that can be constantly adapted and reapplied to changing circumstances”. For this reason, the CIO list for the CEO should including building an agile enterprise architecture. A key element of this needs to be getting customer data in order. Your enterprise cannot win in marketing, sales, and service without a truly customer-centric view. This is also about helping the business predict customer demand. Predictive and prescriptive analytics are critical but they rely on great data—data which is trustworthy and timely.

2) Cybersecurity. It is critical that the CIOs and CISO put together a robust security plan that responds to the risk appetite of their business stakeholders. This plan needs to be more about data than securing the perimeter. Today’s cybercriminal is about attacking one person at the organization that has VPN access. This means CIOs need to ensure that enterprise data is protected as it transverses the enterprise. Too much data is there for the picking because it is not systematically protected. This requires the ability to understand where the sensitive data risks are and the ability to align data security investments, policies, processes, and actions.

3) Increased regulation. It is critical that the business establishes effective information governance. This requires that the business and IT have a strong working relationship. Information requirements need to be established and timely and correct information be created. Fixing this typically requires improving how data is managed. To be effective here, CIOs need to demonstrate they can be an effective custodian of the business data. At the same time, CIOs need to own the processes and technology for ensuring data is secured and available when and where the business needs it.

Parting remarks

So there you have it. There are three opportunities for CIOs to get the requirements right, and in the process become more strategic to the organization. In presenting these, please remember to talk about business value. Your CEO will be suspicious of a discussion laced with technical terms. They want hear about a solution to their business challenges. If in doubt, make sure to position a set of business value propositions around each challenge.

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