Steve Comstock, ExxonMobil’s manager of upstream information technology, aims to ensure that new technology initiatives are aligned with the company’s goals to find better and more cost-effective ways to discover, drill and produce oil and gas.
Yet, achieving alignment requires cooperation and constant feedback from business unit managers who are often focused on meeting production targets and simply getting the job done. In fact, says Robert Gold, vice president of technology for Balanced Scorecard Collaborative, an organization that promotes the use of measurement systems to gauge the success of technology and business initiatives, effective communication between business unit managers and technology executives remains the biggest obstacle at most companies in achieving technology alignment.
How can tech executives improve relations with business unit managers so they can influence strategic decisions and ensure that their initiatives are in sync with business goals?
First, earn respect. “The first thing I do when I go into a company is determine the perceived credibility of I.T.,” Gold says. “Is I.T. seen as cooperative, as an active partner in shaping strategy, or is it viewed as a barrier to getting things done?”
Begin by doing the little things rightmaking sure systems are reliable and always up, answering the phone, responding appropriately to concerns, and being able to quickly bring new employees onto the system. As long as customers are unhappy, it will be impossible to graduate to the next level.
Get players on the team. Representatives from the technology department should be involved in formulating and setting strategy for the business department; conversely, business unit representatives should be directly involved in new application selection and development. At Exxon, the technology department physically pulls engineers or geophysicists into its research center to assist in the development of new applications. “It’s critical that you get the best peoplethe A-team playerson the project,” adds Michael Gerrard, vice president of I.T. management research for Gartner. Offering up a person close to retirement or deemed expendable not only threatens the project’s success, but will damage credibility between the two departments.
Avoid surprises. A common complaint among technology managers, says Arvind Malhotra, associate professor of technology entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, is that they are often told after the fact that business strategies have changed.
Months spent developing an initiative, such as a new online customer service application, may be wasted. That happens when a business unit tells the technology department what it wants, then each heads off on its separate way. “By having people directly involved in strategy sessions, I.T. can sense any changes that may be taking place and either respond or offer input,” Malhotra says. “It sounds logical, but you’d be surprised how often departments work in isolation.”
Remember, it’s a marriage. Successful technology and business alignment can only take place when there is good communication between business unit and technology managers. Like a marriage, that means there has to be some give and take. Jerry
Luftman, who has spent a career studying technology alignment at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., says it begins with a thorough exchange of ideas, knowledge and information between the technology and business units, enabling both to have a clear understanding of priorities and goals.
It sounds simple, but too often, Luftman says, the relationship between technology leaders and business unit managers is adversarial. If the relationship sours too much, the business unit may take steps to work around the technology department, by developing its own projects or outsourcing work to vendors. And the technology department loses control over projects and influence.