We may agonise long and hard over IT and Business alignment but the real ambition for a successful organisation should more often be a question of how to sustain effective engagement between business and IT stakeholders.

Nowhere is the importance of this objective more apparent than in the process of managing business optimisation.

This is where the partnership between technology and business initiative comes under the closest scrutiny and the greatest pressure.

Get business change right and everyone is happy. Get it even slightly wrong and you’ll never hear the end of it.

Effective engagement, though, is not just about relationship management and the odd monthly catch-up with business customers.

It’s about an embedded culture of business and IT working together to achieve purposeful business outcomes and goes well beyond any IT performance metrics that might be enshrined in Service Level Agreements, or even in project and programme plans.

Of course, it’s not easy to measure the degree of stakeholder engagement, despite its importance to successful business and IT outcomes.

Some organisations may apply their own heuristic approach to the challenge, perhaps using scorecard techniques.

But many do not and continue to bear the consequences of relative dysfunction and friction between people, process and workgroups.

The CIO and IT function may be well placed to see such symptoms and recognise organisational problems but they may need to proceed with some caution to improve mutual levels of engagement.

Communication lines
A good place to start is by establishing effective lines of communication and building strong relationships right across the various value chains that constitute the organisation, including internal and external stakeholders.

These form the basis for effective engagement and create valuable channels through which candid exchanges of views, expectations and concerns can flow, routinely not just when things go wrong.

 - Knowing explicitly what all parties think, expect and worry about will help everyone, especially IT, to work as part of a coherent business.
 - Getting good quality feedback about IT expectations is particularly valuable because IT has become so pervasive that it leaves few nooks or crannies of the enterprise untouched.

A Freeform Dynamics study: Defining the Business Change Agenda sought the views of senior business managers in large enterprises.

One of the aspects that respondents were asked to gauge was their expectations of how IT should support business change and optimisation activities (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The chart above shows two categories of IT support for business change and optimisation: the foundation capabilities refer to those IT activities and resources which generally underpin the change agenda but are usually below the waterline from the business stakeholder perspective.

Whereas, the end-user-facing items represent IT that is more immediately apparent.

The results indicate that business managers set fairly high store by IT that can enable business optimisation and change, particularly in terms of business process management, business intelligence and collaboration technologies.

None of these is surprising and CIOs may intuitively direct IT resources towards providing these key business capabilities.
However, the regular process of explicitly seeking, sharing and understanding business priorities versus IT capability is crucial to effective business and IT engagement.

The importance of this feedback loop becomes very clear when we consider some of the specific concerns, expressed by the senior business managers, with regard to what they see as factors inhibiting or impeding business optimisation and change (See Figure 2).

As you can see from the chart at Figure 2, the top five potential blockers of business optimisation and change, as perceived by senior business managers, all relate to management issues that are intrinsically associated with aspects of stakeholder engagement, such as:

 - ownership
 - interaction
 - attention
 - relationship

This list may be very familiar indeed to many of those organisations still struggling with issues of accountability and benefits delivery from the business change agenda.

Figure 2

Nevertheless, the list does give powerful insight into how the prospects for business optimisation and change can be improved by addressing the underlying principles of effective engagement.

We can clearly see the common pressure points and relative importance of potential change inhibitors so we have a ready-made batting order for tackling the problems.

Improving clarity of ownership is often a key step towards improving accountability for achieving purposeful business change so tackling ownership of information and process would seem to be the highest priority, given the list at Figure 2.

However, despite the eminence of the issue, this is not a trivial exercise for any organisation of scale, because information and process boundaries don’t often align neatly with defined management responsibilities within the organisation.

Business ownership
Sometimes it is a little bit easier to approach the problems of ownership from a different angle, for example at the business service level, rather than the subsidiary, component or process level.

Where services are shared, or widely distributed, ownership may often be assigned according to value or risk criteria.

Every organisation will naturally take its own calls on the questions of ownership.

The key though is to take those decisions, rather than letting rightful business ownership drift, by default, towards IT stewardship.

Likewise an effective management team needs to proactively address the issues of business unit cohesion, management attention to the bigger picture (rather than focusing narrowly on individual, parochial boundaries) and relationships.

IT needs to play its part, along with other stakeholders, but may not be in the driving seat.

The best CIOs and IT managers readily understand the value of being regarded as a good business partner — a co-pilot, rather than a back seat driver — and will work towards a sustainable business culture of effective engagement with their stakeholders, within and beyond the organisation.

Their efforts are more likely that IT will make real contributions to enabling business change and optimisation.

Colin Beveridge is Principal Analyst at Freeform Dynamics

Pic: Lulu Hoeller cc2.0