Archaeologists recently found a stone tablet dating from about 2,500 years ago bearing the message, "The job of the CIO is to align IT with the business." And it seems that for just about all of those 2,500 years, that's been pretty good advice that CIOs from across all industries have taken to heart.
But just as those 2,500-year-old systems and applications in the basement no longer match up to the needs of today, neither does that ancient wisdom about alignment -- which is starting to break down under new business realities, new market dynamics, new customer expectations and new technologies.
CIOs who cling to that outdated notion of linear alignment will fail precisely because of that approach, whose fatal flaw is this: If you accept the premise that the CIO's job is to align IT with the business, then you also accept the premise that IT is not a part of the business. You can't have it both ways -- you can't insist that your job is to align with something, while simultaneously insisting you're an integral part of that something. And that's why the model of "align with the business" is ruining the careers of a lot of otherwise very capable CIOs.
Is this the snapshot of your career you want on your desk right now? The dead-center message in "align IT with the business" is that IT is constitutionally misaligned and disconnected from the business, which means the CIO and the entire IT organization are, from the get-go, out of whack and must sit along the wall as backbenchers until the folks at the big-kids table -- The Business -- figure out the strategy and decide what to do. Then they all get up and head out to do The Business while your job is to chase after them, hoping someone drops a copy of The Plan so that you can pick it up and, while racing to catch up, read it and figure out how you can try to align with all the stuff they just decided to do.
Overstated a bit? Maybe, maybe not. The fundamental premise of "align IT with the business" remains absolutely deadly in 2009: It means the CIO and the IT organization are NOT part of the business. Which means you're a cost center. Which means you're expendable, tactical, targeted for elimination and relegated at best to a role of reactive problem solver. Anyone raising her or his hand for a spot like that?
The Center of It All
The new model still involves alignment but of a more dynamic and strategic and growth-oriented kind: The CIO's job is to align IT with your customers! With the company's future, with its revenue, with its new products and services, with its brand and its potential, and with its most treasured assets: its customers!
And CIOs who think this is too risky or flighty or unproven or intrusive must, then, accept the alternative: a role in which you don't see what's going on out on the front lines and instead are told about it by others who give you this information as they are telling you what to do about it. How can CIOs and their teams help power their companies into the customer-centric and technology-driven growth opportunities of the future if those CIOs and their teams don't do everything in their power to make customers the center of their thinking and their mission and their motivation?
It's not a word game; it's as real as a two-by-four across the face. And, as is always the case with CIOs, it's a matter of vision and leadership. Do you want to be the leader of a tactical cost center that forever plays catch-up with The Business, or do you want to fuse yourself and your team into that business, creating the perfect alignment with the future: your customers?
For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO at informationweek.com/global-cio or write Bob Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.