Aligning With Business Needs: Urgent Priority for IT Leaders


I’ve been talking a lot lately about how to better align IT initiatives with true business challenges – mostly because virtually all IT initiatives are intended to help drive organizational outcomes, but also because lately, it seems like the perceived disconnect between IT and business value is growing. IT departments are best appreciated (and funded) when they both deliver business value to their organizations and communicate that value to non-IT colleagues.

Recently I had the pleasure of participating in a PacketPushers podcast on the topic of business-IT alignment challenges with the incredibly talented LinkedIn architect Russ White. (I’m also proud, by the way, to have co-authored with him the book The Art of Network Architecture: Business-Driven Design.) The podcast was hosted by Damiam Huising, the CEO of PacketBrigade.

We had a great time discussing this issue and its oh-so-many facets!

High on the list: The need to break down silos and ask questions within and across IT and business lines. As old processes are displaced by new technologies, everyone must assume some responsibility for determining the future of how things work in their organization.

In IT, we’ve seen moments like this before. Remember the changes wrought by Voice-over-IP, when telecom and network teams and technologies had to converge – often painfully – to support new business communication methods. Business that made the transition generally found benefits from better productivity to improved customer service to cost-savings. But it’s never happened on such a scale as now, amid a widespread move to virtualized, software-defined, and software-controlled data centers and networks and the growing influence of the cloud.

Now’s the time for everyone in your organization, from the CEOs to the CIO and from engineers to business unit leaders, to examine together what emerging network and IT solutions make good sense for the business going forward. Part of that discussion should focus on the processes that will have to change if you choose to adopt emerging technologies.

These discussions matter to the future of all businesses, no matter their industry or size: Every company today is an information company, after all, and the opportunities technology provides to put information to use for maximum advantage are greater than ever before.

Successful transitions require that all employees understand what the business wants to do strategically, and what IT foundation(s) it will draw upon to help it get there. There also needs to be openness to bringing about culture and process changes as needed.

Lean In to the Other Side

It’s well-known that business and technology professionals come at issues from different perspectives. Business people tend to be thinking about destinations – short- and long-range plans for products and services, and for growth of the organization. IT staffers and engineers tend to be focused on the roadmap of getting there.

The first part of Business-IT alignment success, then, comes when each group starts looking at things from the other’s point of view. Tech people need to ask the right questions to understand the big picture. Business leaders, meanwhile, need to proactively communicate with their IT colleagues so they can decide the best technology to support the business goals.

Tech people need to know that a key business goal is to build a new sales channel in the next 24 months, for example, while the business-side folks should understand that wrapping the right technology around that can make the difference between success and failure.

A good understanding of where you want to end up leads to a good understanding of your requirements. That then drives the technical planning. What potential issues around security or compliance may exist? What are the advantages to delivering sales applications and data over the public cloud, say, versus optimized and software-defined corporate WAN connections? What comparisons can be drawn about total costs of operations?

Indeed, this kind of collaboration done early on means that IT can plan to implement the technology that will best serve the larger goal – or contract for outsourcing it – in the best and most cost-efficient way, well in advance of the new sales channel’s birth, rather than trying to step on the gas at the last minute.

Regardless of the specific strategy and technology involved, decisions made will likely have repercussions down to the people- and process-level. That spells C-H-A-N-G-E, and it’s perhaps one of the thorniest subjects to tackle as it requires all affected personnel to move outside of their comfort zones. Just as technology silos were broken and processes altered so that networks could support voice along with data when VoIP came on the scene, so too may responsibilities and paradigms shift as other technologies are more fully embraced in the service of meeting business goals.

It’s not unusual, of course, for IT workers and engineers – or business staff, for that matter – to be resistant to changing the way they’ve always done things in the data center, on the network, or in their apps. They worry about the consequences of messing with what’s worked well for the last few years. And they don’t want to relinquish control to their peers in other groups. That’s a good reason to invest time in learning from others in the field who have had experience with similar technologies and process changes, finding out what they’ve seen work and what they’ve seen fail. Applying others’ insights to projects can go a long way toward alleviating such concerns.

Another reason folks resist change is more personal: They may be concerned that their own jobs will be eliminated when processes change.

It’s an understandable worry, but our advice to anyone in that position is this: Take the bull by the horns. Break the process mold if doing so benefits the company and lets it get the most value from the changing technology. Suggest revamps to someone high enough in the organization to ensure that good ideas get pushed down through the ranks. As Russ so well summarized it, he’s never seen anyone fired for starting a cross-silo working group or undertaking any other effort that helped drive change in an organization to that organization’s benefit.

If you’d like to hear the discussion in full, and hopefully gain some more tips to help you move alignment goals forward and put innovative processes in place, tune in.

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