In this short blog piece I would like to outline the thinking behind my recent research into aligning processes in strategic IT projects. The logic of alignment is intuitive: Improving the fit between information technology and the aims of the organization yields improved performance. However, alignment consistently ranks as a top challenge for managers. Struck by the rigidity of conventional thinking around this problem, we were driven to explore new angles in our research. This prompted us to look at new ways in which to examine IT alignment.
As we see it, much of the thinking on alignment is a bit like learning how to cook through the experience of eating at just one restaurant. Yes, we can make some important choices about what to eat and, yes, we can judge whether (or not) we like the courses served, but we gain only limited insight into the cookery process. In other words, there is a gap in our understanding. With this in mind, we are promoting the shift from alignment to aligning. Hopefully, the analogy I’ve made to cookery underlines why this is more than just semantics!
Our research attends to the doing of strategy – how it is accomplished – by observing the everyday practices of individuals. It is, after all, these sets of practices that shape technology-in-use which, we argue, is the way that outcomes from strategic IT projects are reached. This enables researchers to ‘lift the lid’ on the practices involved in aligning IT and organisational capabilities with the business plan – attending to the gap introduced earlier.
Without delving into the detail of our case study, our findings support some exciting directions for future research:
- Aligning is a dynamic process – one that is substantially dependent upon an ensemble of emergent practices, rather than, or at least in addition to, meticulous planning. We saw that the ways in which people respond to using a technology, the strategic reasoning behind its adoption and the organisational context emerges over time. Planning alone, cannot safeguard successful alignment.
- Aligning accommodates the notion that IT projects may include elements that are both aligned and misaligned which ultimately shape project outcomes. We saw that, when IT underperformed or hindered the possibility of meeting performance targets, individuals could (and did) compensate for these problems. However, this reconfigured how IT was used, contradicting some aspects of the original ‘plan’. Aligning is the emergent interplay between users, technology and context that managers make sense of and adapt to.
There is a great deal of scope to refine our understanding of aligning IT projects and the positive contributions that this can make to managing IT projects.
This piece draws on work presented at the 34th ICIS conference in December 2013 held in Milan, Italy: Performing strategy: Aligning processes in strategic IT, A Wilson, JJ Baptista, RD Galliers. Available: http://aisel.aisnet.org/icis2013/proceedings/OrganizationIS/7/