“Strategic alignment” – profundity or platitude?
Some time ago I wrote a post entitled, Models and messes in management, wherein I discussed how a “scientific” approach to management has resulted in a one-size-fits-all approach to problem solving in organizations. This is reflected in the tendency of organisations to implement similar information technology (IT) systems, often on the “expert” advice of carbon-copy consultancies that offer commoditized solutions.
A particularly effective marketing tactic is to advertise such “solutions” as being able to help organisations achieve strategic alignment between IT and the business. In this post I discuss how the concept of “strategic alignment” though seemingly sensible, makes no sense in the messy, real world of organization-land. My discussion is based on a brilliant paper by Claudio Ciborra entitled, De Profundis? Deconstructing the concept of strategic alignment. The paper analyses the notion of alignment as it is commonly understood in the context of IT– namely as a process by which IT objectives are brought in line with those of the organization it serves.
The paper begins with a short chronology of the term strategic alignment, starting with this highly cited paper published by Henderson and Venkataraman in 1993. The paper describes the need for alignment between business and IT strategies of companies. More importantly, however, the authors detail a “Strategic Alignment Model” that purports to “guide management practice” towards achieving alignment between IT and the business. However, as Ciborra noted four years later, in 1997, it was still an open question as to what strategic alignment really meant and how it was to be achieved.
Fast forward 15 years to 2012, and it appears that the question of what strategic alignment is and how to achieve it still an open one. Here are some excerpts from recently published papers:
In the abstract to their paper entitled, Strategic Alignment of Business Processes, Morrison et. al. state:
Strategic alignment is a mechanism by which an organization can visualize the relationship between its business processes and strategies. It enables organizational decision makers to collect meaningful insights based on their current processes. Currently it is difficult to show the sustainability of an organization and to determine an optimal set of processes that are required for realizing strategies.” (italics mine)
Even worse, the question of what strategic alignment is is far from settled. It appears that it means different things to different people. In the abstract to their paper entitled, Reconsidering the Dimensions of Business-IT Alignment, Schlosser et. al. state:
While the literature on business-IT alignment has become increasingly mature in the past 20 years, different definitions and conceptualizations have emerged. Several dimensions like strategic, intellectual, structural, social, and cultural alignment have been developed. However, no integrated and broadly accepted categorization exists and these dimensions are non-selective and do overlap…
This begs the question as to how meaningful it is for organizations to pursue “alignment” when people are still haggling over the fine print of what it means.
Ciborra dealt with this very question 15 years ago. In the remainder of this post I summarize the central ideas of his paper, which I think are as relevant today as the were at the time it was written.
Deconstructing strategic alignment
The whole problem with the notion of strategic alignment is nicely summarized in a paragraph that appears in Ciborra’s introduction:
…while strategic alignment may be close to a truism conceptually, in the everyday business it is far from being implemented. Strategy ends up in “tinkering” and the IT infrastructure tends to “drift”. If alignment was supposed to be the ideal “bridge” connecting the two key variables [business and IT], it must be admitted that such a conceptual bridge faces the perils of the concrete bridge always re-designed and never built between continental Italy and Sicily, (actually, between Scylla and Charybdis) its main problem being the shores: shifting and torn by small and big earthquakes….
The question, then, is how and why do dubious concepts such as strategic alignment worm their way into mainstream management?
Ciborra places the blame for this squarely in the camp of academics who really ought to know better. As he states:
[Management Science] deploys careful empirical research, claiming to identify “naturally occurring phenomena” but in reality measures theoretical (and artificial) constructs so that the messiness of everyday reality gets virtually hidden. Or it builds models that should be basic but do not last a few years and quickly fall into oblivion.
And a few lines later:
…practitioners and academics increasingly worship simplified models that have a very short lifecycle….managers who have been exposed to such illusionary models, presented as the outcome of quasi-scientific studies, are left alone and disarmed in front of the intricacies of real business processes and behaviors, which in the meantime have become even more complicated than when these managers left for their courses. People’s existence, carefully left out of the models, waits for them at their workplaces.
Brilliantly put, I think!
Boxes, arrows and platitudes
Generally, strategic alignment is defined as a fit, or a bridge, between different domains of a business. To be honest it seems the metaphor of a “bridge” seems to distract from reflecting on the chasm that is allegedly being crossed and the ever-shifting banks that lie on either side. Those who speak of alignment would do better to first focus on what they are trying to align. They may be surprised to find that the geometric models that pervade their PowerPoint Presentations (e.g. organograms, boxes connected by arrows) are completely divorced from reality. Little surprise, then, that top-down, management efforts at achieving alignment invariably fail.
Why do such tragedies play out over and over again?
Once again, Ciborra offers some brilliant insights…
The messy world, he tells us, gives us the raw materials from which we build simplified representations of the organization we work in. These representations are often built in the image of models that we have learnt or read about (or have been spoon-fed to us by our expensive consultants). Unfortunately, these models are abstractions of reality – they cannot and must not be confused with the real thing. So when we speak of alignment, we are talking of an abstraction that is not “out there in the world” but instead only resides in our heads; in textbooks and journal papers; and, of course, in business school curricula.
As he says,
…there is no pure alignment to be measured out there. It is, on the contrary, our pre-scientific understanding of and participating in the world of organizations that gives to the notion of alignment a shaky and ephemeral existence as an abstraction in our discourses and representations about the world.
This is equally true of management research programs on alignment: they are built on multiple abstractions and postulated causal connections that are simply not there.
If academics who spend their productive working lives elaborating these concepts make little headway, what hope is there for the manager who to implement or measure strategic alignment?
Is there any hope?
Ciborra tells us that the answer to the question posed in the sub-heading is a qualified “yes”. One can pursue alignment, but one must first realize that the concept is an abstraction that exists only in an ideal world in which there are no surprises and in which things always go according to plan. Perhaps more importantly, they need to understand that implementations of technology invariably have significant unintended consequences that require improvised responses and adaptations. Moreover, these are essential aspects of the process of alignment, not things that can be wished away by better plans or improved monitoring.
So what can one do? As Ciborra states:
…we are confronted with a choice. Either we can do what management science suggests, that is “to realize these surprises in implementation as exceptions, build an ideal world of “how things should be” and to try to operate so that the messy world that in which managers operate moves towards this model….or we suspend belief about what we think we know…and reflect on what we observe. Sticking to the latter we encounter phenomena that deeply enrich our notion of alignment… (italics mine)
Ciborra then goes on to elaborate on concepts of Care (dealing with the world as it is, but in a manner that is honest and free of preconceived notions), Cultivation (allowing systems to evolve in a way that is responsive to the needs of the organization rather than a predetermined plan) and Hospitality (the notion that the organization hosts the technology, much in the way that a host hosts a guest). It would take at least a thousand words more to elaborate on these concepts, so I’ll have to leave it here. However, if you are interested in finding out more, please see my summary and review of Ciborra’s book: The Labyrinths of Information.
…and finally, who aligns whom?
The above considerations lead us to the conclusion that, despite our best efforts, technology infrastructures tend to have lives of their own – they align us as much as we (attempt to) align them. IT infrastructures are deeply entwined with the organizations that host them, so much so that they are invisible (until they breakdown, of course) and even have human advocates who “protect” their (i.e. the infrastructure’s) interests! Although this point may seem surprising to business folks, it is probably familiar to those who work with information systems in corporate or other organizational environments.
A final word: many other management buzz-phrases, though impressive sounding, are just as meaningless as the term strategic alignment. However, I think I have rambled on enough, so I will leave you here to find and deconstruct some of these on your own.