Discussion about how to align IT management with business priorities has been bantered around in conference rooms for many years and will continue to be an active geyser of dialogue because this elusive goal is the “holy grail” for most IT professionals.

If one considers the historical variances regarding the grail then, the analogy seems appropriate. IT and business alignment can mean different things to different people; its manifestation and execution can be inconsistent across organizations, much like interpretations of the grail itself.

According to the Society for Information Management’s annual survey of CIOs and senior IT executives, IT and business alignment tops the list of concerns. It is critical to achieve IT alignment because it provides significant benefits for any business, including:

Competitive edge: An IT organization that is aligned with the overall business goals and empowered on strategic initiatives is a key driver of innovation in a corporation.

Higher performance: Alignment on business goals ensures that, on a micro level, IT works on projects that deliver the most value to an organization , therefore delivering a higher overall company performance.

Business agility: Business-IT alignment and , specifically, better communication between IT and business units improves an organization’s ability to adapt to changing business climates, competitive moves and so forth.

In general, business priorities for most companies at the macro level seem to be reasonably consistent:

  • Brand equity and company velocity (i.e., how consumption for the product grows)
  • Strategy for increasing revenues
  • Strategy for increasing margins and decreasing expenses
  • Cash flow

These are all valid and coherent goals, but the real work for the IT professionals begins in the details. The most successful organizations understand that organizational alignment starts with clearly defined, top-down business goals, accompanied with a standardized method of communication to the rank and file. Presumably the next step is building consensus from the bottom-up, but that’s not always the case.
Most IT professionals agree that supporting these primary business goals is critical to a productive and healthy relationship with the business units they serve; however, this is easier said than done. Often, business priorities change, and when they do IT has to adapt without much notice. To mitigate disruption and confusion, IT management should always endeavor to find, and partner with, a functional business liaison who will advocate on IT’s behalf. Project prioritization can be the most difficult challenge facing IT – and the most misunderstood by the business.

One of the most unpleasant situations for any executive is  a surprise. They don’t like them, especially when it comes to project delays, missed targets or lost market share. A disciplined conduit for communication between IT and its partners is a requirement, and offers protection against the unwanted surprise. IT project portfolio management  supports this conduit, providing an insurance policy for any misconceptions about the value IT provides or the work it accomplishes.

Project portfolio management and application portfolio management act as pipeline management tools for IT. High-performing IT organizations rely heavily on PPM as an enabling technology, which empowers them to effectively manage resources, govern processes and monitor IT performance. These systems do for IT what CRM does for sales and marketing: They are visibility and accountability tools that categorize facts, instead of opinions. If it can be measured, it can be improved.

Some companies succumb to the misconception that software solutions can help cure the alignment challenge; this alignment begins with human interaction between IT and the business. The outcome of these discussions can then be documented, measured, managed, tracked and traced with PPM. There is no substitute for accountability, and any department associated chiefly as a cost center has to ensure that they factually support their contributions. Today, if you’re not selling or building product then you are expendable.  Positive points and multiple data points counter that risk.

Business plans and priorities often change, and when they do, IT and the business need to understand the impact of these changes on work effort, resources and achievability of said goals. PPM can act as an early warning system when priorities or schedules change, which, in turn, protect against dreaded surprises. Alignment between IT and the overall business can be achieved when standards for communication are adhered to, IT process and resource fall in line and a supporting infrastructure  is in place to govern communication and processes. Then, and only then, the “holy grail” is truly within reach of IT organizations.

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