Some 26 years ago, a pair of MIT researchers tackled the problem of achieving interdependencies among the many business units involved in producing information systems.
Profs. John C. Henderson and N. Venkatraman introduced the concept of strategic alignment.
As it was phrased back then, strategic alignment was the ideal that if business units shared the same goals, then if they all broke down their business processes into individualized segments, they could automate some of those segments and give each other greater opportunities to work towards those goals.
The realization that business units could work together would naturally come, the professors believed, once these automated components of work became so atomic that everyone could perceive themselves as being responsible for any part of it.
One example they gave at the time concerned expert systems, which was a rising new technology of the 1980s. The idea that a technology could be employed in a decision-making process, they intimated, could have considerable ramifications on the value of executive decisions.
IT (or, as it was called then, “I/S”) could be as important to the decision-making process as a business analyst, a purchasing agent, or a service manager. So it’s important, they reasoned, that all these groups get together on the same page.
I don’t know how many business technology conferences you get a chance to attend, but over the last quarter-century, it’s just as difficult as it ever was for the people in these various groups to get together in the same cafeteria.
As something of an amateur sociologist, I’ve conducted people-watching as a crucial part of my career. My favorite technology conferences are those that make the attempt to blend the combustible chemicals of marketing, software development, and information security. (Shout out to the RSA Conference, which I’ve missed for the past few years, to my prolonged sadness.)
Tech conferences divide themselves into “tracks” because they know their attendees will get lost, and maybe even go home, if they can’t be shown the way to where the rest of their people are.
At shows with a bent toward marketing, a product manager will demo a collaboration platform. She’s not only excited, she’s “super-excited” to show you how her platform enables business managers just like her to create live, mobile apps that are connected to data anywhere in the cloud, “all without any trace of IT!”
Meaning, no one had to venture into the basement where the tech people congregate, to get anything accomplished.
“Shadow IT,” as it is presented in one of the contrarily-colored tracks on the opposite end of the hotel ballroom from marketing, is the enemy of all sensible information workers. It’s what those people who wear suits conspire to produce, as a conscious effort at counter-intelligence.
It’s a kind of corporate espionage directed personally at the IT department, believes the IT department.
A new technology, observed Profs. Venkatraman and Henderson, can disrupt business processes so substantially that they can redefine what the goals of business are. “Shadow IT,” some actually believe, is a conscious effort to weaponize, if you will, business service disruption.
People genuinely believe, and have argued in discussions with me and in my presence, that the entire purpose of mobile apps and cloud-based file-sharing and mobile messaging and collaboration platforms are to destabilize businesses and minimize the gap between low-paying information technology jobs and high-paying management jobs.
It’s not about business alignment, I’ve heard. It’s about class warfare. If Venkatraman’s and Henderson’s dream were to be realized, and the components of all business processes were to be given equivalent value, then pay scale as we know it would cease to exist.
The Big Bang
Let’s be honest with each other: Never in the 26 years that strategic alignment has been an element of business discussion, has there ever been an entire industry where this has, for the most part, happened. It has been achieved in individual organizations, sometimes for several years in a row.
But not in entire segments of the global economy.
The reasons, I submit, are entirely social. At certain levels, corporate dynamics and family dynamics are very similar. From the professors’ standpoint, organizations are comprised of business processes. As we know from experience, they’re really comprised of relationships.
Have a seat sometime at a table in the center of a multi-track tech conference. Watch the marketers chuckle as they identify which of the developer-types acts most like the sitcom character Sheldon.
Observe the wardrobes of the different business groups, and notice over time how groups wearing different wardrobes congeal unto each other, withdrawing into their own respective spaces.
In more than one multi-track conference I attended, there were sessions (in two cases, keynotes) devoted in large measure to a remedial course, given by motivational speakers, directed towards software developers, in how to communicate with other human beings.
A few years ago, I volunteered to be a software developer just so I could come on stage to have the motivational speaker tell me how to speak, how to behave, how to be noticed, how to be loved.
I’ve made a good first start, she said. I didn’t come to the conference in a grungy T-shirt. Only other developers like grungy T-shirts.
What’s next? Well, I should stop being so introverted.
What’s wrong with having a few beers with the rest of the company? Learn to like football, she suggested. Don’t be so timid. Remember the William Shatner bit from “Saturday Night Live?” Have I ever kissed a girl?
When the humiliation was over, she came to my table and thanked me for being such a good sport. I asked for the spelling of her name, and after she gave it to me, she said I’ve made progress in being interested in other people and taking such copious notes about matters such as her name.
Then I introduced myself as a reporter and gave her this advice: If you want to communicate with other people, you need to stop perceiving them as members of classes, and see them as individuals.
This is the part of “strategic alignment” that the MIT professors omit. For people to see eye-to-eye, they have to communicate with one another. They have to become interested in who they are as people, not what they represent as agents of business processes.
A few years ago, IBM (which funded the original alignment study) urgently declared that business units have failed to align with one another. What technology will come about that will finally bring business goals, processes, managers, executives and specialists together?
I have one in mind. It’s called a hearing aid.