Case study: Alignment in the real world

Aligning IT strategy with the needs of the business sounds eminently sensible - but how easy is it to put into practice? Owen...

Aligning IT strategy with the needs of the business sounds eminently sensible - but how easy is it to put into practice? Owen Williams, partner and head of IT at commercial and residential property agents Knight Frank, recounts how he tackled the issue.

Owen Williams took over last year as head of IT at Knight Frank and has recently drawn up his first IT strategy for the firm.

To align this with the business strategy, he gave himself sufficient time to draw it up. "It's taken me six months to reach a point where I could understand how to structure the strategy," he explains.

A good starting point is to identify what your company's business strategy is. Here Williams was more fortunate than some other CIOs who work in organisations where the business strategy is not clear or, worse, is disputed by senior managers between themselves.

Although Frank Knight has "a clearly articulated, published, global business strategy," says Williams, a document, however comprehensive, is no substitute for active investigation. Accordingly, he took care to speak personally to senior managers in the UK and overseas. "Just sit and listen to what they want," he advises.

Absorb the local culture
This gave Williams a chance to familiarise himself with Frank Knight's corporate culture. "IT might say to business - 'here is a single global system to which you will all adapt'," he says. But by thoroughly investigating the key needs behind different parts of the organisation - functionally and geographically - Williams could then get a good idea of where common systems would work, and where they would not.

Sometimes, he points out, it turns out to be a good thing to have a common system where no one had thought it possible. At other times a common system is ruled out on the grounds that it won't represent value for money in all areas or functions, so it should not be implemented across the organisation.

Chart a clear course
Another crucial consideration was geography. Because of the decentralised nature of the firm's business strategy, which is divided into four global regions - and the national and divisional divisions beneath - Williams recognised that he had to layer the IT strategy to accommodate these fiefdoms, where "top down imposition" was not the rule.

Williams decided to split IT strategy into three - covering information systems, information technology and information management and then to apply these concepts globally, nationally, regionally and by division.

The information system identifies the business processes that need to be automated, information technology identifies the particular technology to do this, and information management sets out the organisational structures of IT itself, such as account management, financial control, methodology and performance measurement.

To tailor this structure to the needs of the company required the involvement of managers across the business. "I wasn't banging on closed doors," he says, but admits he did sometimes have to chivvy people along for input and insight.

"Getting people to think clearly (about how IT can support their business needs) can be difficult," he says. "But the goodwill is there."

Take it from the top
Williams also received crucial top-down support. "We created an IT strategy committee which has two executive board members and all the significant business players," he says. "You've got to be at that level of seniority - the executive board have to own the IT strategy."

He found it helpful that the firm had adopted the ISO9000 quality benchmark. "From a strategic point of view it meant that IT should support ISO best practice" and consequently support best business practice, says Williams.

The next step was to take the freshly formulated approach to IT strategy to the IT strategy committee. This was the moment, he said, when he knew he was definitely on the right lines.

"I knew I'd cracked it when we discussed the approach and we all agreed," he recalls. "Next we'll present it to the executive board."

It is absolutely vital to get top-level sign off that the IT strategy does, indeed, align with business the strategy. "You need a lot of business approval to ensure that the IT strategy is aligned," says Williams. "It's absolutely vital that it's approved and adopted."

Banish technical terminology
However, it's also crucial, he says, that the IT strategy should not be regarded in a technical light. "Don't mention technology," says Williams. "No Lans or Wans! The thing I'm having most difficulty with is not to be too explicit about technology."

Williams has found that business managers can jump from decision to conclusion - leaving out the intermediate bits. "They're not too comfortable with the management strategies for dealing with the 'how to' details - it's an audience who may well not know what a methodology is!" he warns.

Too many current physical to current logical to future logical to future physical models can be a turn-off for business people. "You must present the strategy in a jargon-free way to senior managers, who will then ensure you get buy-in all down the organisation," says Williams.

The strategy must also convince the IT department itself. If IT staff do not understand, or agree with the IT strategy, its successful implementation can only be jeopardised.

In Williams' case, his staff "think it's brilliant to be able to hang the IT hooks on to the business drivers," he says.

With an articulated, aligned IT strategy, that business understands, agrees with and is enthusiastic about, getting buy-in for IT projects should be far simpler and easier, because they will take place as part of a framework which business has approved.

It works both ways
This paves the way to making aligning IT strategy with business strategy a two-way street.

IT can never be merely the passive implementer of business ideas - it must proactively push for new ways of doing business, and new business itself, which the ongoing development of technology is perpetually enabling.

"IT should definitely influence business strategy," says Williams, "in that new IT, and the more efficient implementation of IT, can create competitive opportunities for us - and for our competitors - so we are constantly evaluating these threats and opportunities for the firm."

This is, perhaps, the final and most important consideration. Business strategy can, and sometimes must, change - and at an increasingly fast speed - so IT strategy must change with it.

"You need a mechanism to allow for IT strategy to change as business strategy changes," say Williams. "It's important to create the structures that will allow IT strategy to evolve."

This, he feels, has been achieved. "Our IT strategy is now a living process," he is pleased to report.
This was last published in June 2002

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