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A technical tool for social alignment

by Mark P. McDonald  |  April 29, 2009  |  2 Comments

Business and IT alignment is a persistent and pervasive issue.  It is a persistent issue facing all executives, those who are responsible for the business and those responsible for IT.  Alignment involves the synchronization of plans and objectives across both groups. 

IT people see alignment as a technical system largely driven by tools.  IT professionals use these tools to create an alignment event, like the signing of the Treaty of Versailles with all parties coming to the table to sign a document that would deliver ‘value in our time.’  I know I just mixed events, but the focus on alignment as an event, powered by tools, shared visions, requirement statements, business cases, IT portfolio allocations, and all of that. 

Business leaders see alignment as a social process, a dialog that engages leaders in determining the way forward.  Executives use the term ‘socialize’ to describe this approach.  Socialization is not just a new buzzword but highlights a different focus as opposed to technical systems like IT alignment tools. 

You need both social and technical systems to foster, operate and maintain alignment.  Notice I did not say achieve, because that is indicative of achieving a state of agreement – things are just too dynamic to say that alignment is something you achieve once and forever.  The figure below highlights the combination and contribution of both systems to results. 

IT leaders use tools to engage the business, capture their needs and shape those needs into implementable IT plans.  IT leaders focus on the technical tools of alignment. They assume that business leaders are from Vulcan.  They are rational, logical and structured in their thinking.  This is the ethos behind the focus on technical tools for alignment; you will get alignment if you just apply the tools.  Given the success of alignment tools and the persistence of this issue, it is time to take a fresh look at alignment and recognize the other half of the equation – the social nature of business.

If business leaders know one thing, it’s that change happens early, often and in ways you cannot readily predict.  In an environment of dynamic change, the notion of alignment as an event, the creation of a single plan that will last through time is frankly preposterous.  The business asks itself why are they participating in these alignment exercises.  Particularly when they know that the agreements made today can change tomorrow and will change before the end of the year.  And the answer becomes apparent as IT executives apply more elaborate and expensive tools.

Business leaders feel that IT tries to control them using ‘alignment’ tools.  IT leaders counter that they are trying to structure, prioritize and focus on the business issues that matter most and the tools help that.  But structuring, prioritization and focusing are all methods of control?

Business leaders resent that control; after all they are the ones responsible for making the money that pays for IT investments and personnel.  Anyone who knows the business, knows that things change, so why can’t alignment be an ongoing process rather than a tool or an event?  Business leaders want a social system for alignment, one that is adaptable in part by not being specific and delaying commitments as much as possible.

Flexible technologies raise the importance of social systems in alignment.  This is not a Cloud, Software as a Service, or Web 2.0 issue.  Its an issue that has been building for some time as every major IT investment over the past ten years was based, in part, on improving flexibility, responsiveness, etc.  Developments like Service Oriented Architecture, Portals, Enterprise Architecture, Agile Development and the like support greater agility and flexibility.  This is a good thing and the business knows it. 

Executives expect technology flexibility to translate into business flexibility.  They have been sold on the flexibility.  They are puzzled when IT continues to look to lock them in using tools that were based on old-inflexible technologies.  This puzzle comes to a head when the business seeks to accelerate change only to be informed by IT that it will take time, we need to redevelop our platform, we are flexible but not in that particular area or to achieve that goal. 

I am not criticizing IT.  After all IT is incredibly complex, ever evolving, and requires investment and redevelopment to take advantage of new capabilities.  The issue is not that IT is inflexible, controlling or limiting and the business is the opposite.  That would be too simplistic.  But its clear that IT professionals who continue to manage alignment based on technical tools oriented toward control, will find themselves out of favor.

The issue is that technologists need technical tools that handle the social realities of the business.  I would like to propose an idea for a tool that matches the social drivers of change with the technologies capacity to change.  It’s based on the idea of understanding the sources of sensitivities in the business and technical model. 

I first heard this approach at a conference where a lawyer was describing paths to manage e-discovery exposure.  He pointed out the need for looking at the business to decide where that exposure is.  For example a manufacturer would be relatively more exposed in terms of product litigation.  A services company would be more exposed in terms of employment litigation and so forth.

Applying this idea to the social and technical aspects of alignment, creates a matrix that looks at the social drivers of change and technologies ability to respond to that change.  I am not suggesting that this matrix, shown on the figure below, is revolutionary.  I hope it’s helpful in its application as most tools concentrate on the technical aspects.

Social systems side captures the sources of change

The left side of the tool highlights the social systems aspects of alignment.  The rows on this side highlight the different socially based areas where flexibility demand could arise.  It looks at different

  • Business Strategy and Direction identifies changes to achieve the enterprises goals.  Recognize that strategy is directional containing capturing decisions that are the basis for your competitiveness.  Use the strategy as a basis for dialogue not dictation
  • Executive Leadership will have new ideas based on current results and market conditions.  Those ideas form from their experience and interactions both inside and outside the enterprise.  Be part of those discussions.  Be there when the questions are asked, the ideas generated and the
  • Business Model defines how the company works and where it is adaptable to market conditions.  Look at the business model to identify where the company should change.
  • Operational / Financial Performance will drive the need for flexibility for apparent reasons.  Tracking performance, particularly changes in the cost structure will provide an early indication of where change will come.
  • Legal / Regulatory requirements generate compliance related changes and initiatives.  Be part of briefings from corporate council, trade associations and others as legal changes have long lead times – so there should be no surprises here.

The cells in this side of the matrix should contain capabilities, products, processes and operations that are likely to change.  These are the areas where IT needs to concentrate on working with the business in terms of its social systems.

The right side of the tool is more familiar to technologists as it looks at the capacity for flexibility in terms of the technical  systems managed by IT.  The cells in this side of the matrix focus on the technology assets and their capacity to change.  The cells include applications, information, data center operations, etc.  Use the information on the right side of the tool to shape the social interactions and discussions around areas of flexibility.

The action plan at the center is where the hard work happens and you maintain a set of actions, projects, activities required to monitor, achieve and deliver alignment.  For example, if the business model is susceptible to a high level of change from growth by M&A, then which parts of the technical infrastructure will be required to respond and what actions do you need to take.

This tool is a first draft and offered to help provide a technical tool for handling a social and technical issue.  Interested in your thoughts as alignment becomes more important than ever in an environment of volatility and uncertainly.

Category: tools  

Tags: alignment  business-management  it-management  tools  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on A technical tool for social alignment

  1. Roger Bottum says:

    There are corallaries between your social model and some of the models for enterprise risk management, and more tactically to best practices in regulated industries like pharma and financial services.

    One challenge is to determine the effective set of metrics to measure the progress and outcomes of social change at scale in an enterprise.


  2. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comments and yes the idea of technically evaluating social factors is also used in risk management. You might say that alignment is a risk that needs to be managed. I tried to stay away from the risk aspect as that often puts IT professionals into a mindset of minimization and control which runs counter to the goal of aligning with the business.


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