Peaks and Valleys

Recently I heard Dr. Peter Keen, the noted IT consultant, remark that after observing and consulting on the IT environment for 30 years, he discovered that the problems remain the same. And one of the chief lingering problems is the perception that IT and the business remain unaligned.

I’ve written myself of this lack of alignment, maintaining that the two are probably better aligned than most people think.

It appears to me now that alignment is a relative term, and that things can become unaligned perhaps for very practical reasons. Understanding these reasons, of course, can take you and your company a long way toward resolving temporary imbalances between IT and the goals of the business.

If you are like most people, you understand things better when you can see them rather than when you just read about them. So do this. Get a pen and piece of paper. Sketch out a sine wave, or a curved line on an X-Y axis with equally spaced peaks and valleys. Now just below that sine wave, sketch out an identical one, with the peaks and valleys in harmony with one another.

Think of the top wave as your hardware buying cycle. It is controlled principally, even strictly in some companies, by financial considerations. In other words, by the CFO. You buy hardware at the bottom of the cycle, it depreciates over 3 or 4 years, in accordance with IRS rules and regulations. Then when the cycle ends -- at the bottom or valley -- you buy more hardware.

The bottom wave is your applications purchasing cycle. It is driven primarily by pure business considerations. For example, "We need a new sales support system," or "Our telemarketing operations have to be updated because our competitors just did the same."

As long as these two waves are in synch, with the peaks and valleys lined up with one another, there are no big problems. The company’s business requirements, which are software-driven, line up with the ability to buy the hardware to support the applications.

But what about when they don’t? Let’s say the new sales application to support remote sales staff is CD-driven, but the current crop of laptops, purchased 18 months ago, isn’t equipped with CD drives. You can purchase external drives, but the sales reps will hate them. Besides, they are expensive relative to the cost of new laptops. And new ones are out of the question because the current ones have another 18 months to go before they are written off.

In other words, the sine waves are dissonant. And your application is in jeopardy.

You would think that after so many years -- decades now, in fact -- of trying to align business and IT that the two waves would harmonize much better than they do. One reason they do not is that major product cycles used to correspond roughly to the CFO-driven hardware cycles. About every 4 or 5 years, IBM would introduce a new mainframe generation. Wasn’t that convenient?

Today, some product cycles, especially for desktop products, are measured in months instead of years. The business models of giant companies such as Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are utterly dependent upon very large numbers of enterprise customers conforming to @@Itheir@@SR product cycles, not to the customers’ business-driven buying clocks.

Most of the marketing and messaging from companies such as Intel and Microsoft target end users and department managers, not the IT buyer. And with user departments controlling maybe 70 percent of the purchasing power these days, hardware and software often just "materializes," whether or not it was purchased as part of a larger plan to harmonize those sine waves.

Is there anything you can do, given factors like these?

Let me turn to Keen again, because he’s been tracking your environment much longer than most people have. His advice is this: Be technology-agnostic. Don’t let you and your company be ruled by platform choices; rather invest in what it takes to take care of the bottom of the two sine waves: Invest in applications.

Thus, following Keen one more step, suppose the business imperative is like this: "Regardless of how we do it, it is absolutely vital we have X application."

The IT imperative that follows must be, "If these are business essentials, then our technology platform must be Y." Of course, one requirement to make this happen is having business executives smart enough to know when IT must be brought into the planning cycle. But the distinction here is that your role is evolving -- once again -- far more as a technologist than a businessperson, which is what consultants have been trying to transform you into for the last 15 years.

Bill Laberis is president of Bill Laberis Associates Inc. (Holliston, Mass.) and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld. Contact him at bill@laberis.com.