Aligning IT with Business Strategy

A sub-discipline of IT called "Enterprise Architecture" (EA) exists to ensure that IT strategy is aligned with that of the business it serves. It sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Get the business to share its strategy with you, and you can make sure that you have the necessary IT infrastructure, chose the appropriate applications and engineer the best environment to support this strategy. There are a number of challenges to consider before most EA engagements can even get off the ground.

The first problem with Enterprise Architecture is that business strategy isn't very easy to define. For businesses with a defined strategy, they often don't have  the faintest idea of how to realize that strategy.

Let's look at the five strategic principles agreed upon by a large Canadian university:

  1. Excel as a comprehensive university
  2. Inspire and support student potential
  3. Promote access to quality, affordable post-secondary education
  4. Build internal community and enhance relationships with external communities
  5. Enhance the sustainability of the university

Agreed upon strategies, but how actionable are they? How can an IT department align itself with any of these strategies?

The last strategy might be the most concrete one to tackle first. IT strategies can support sustainability by implementing large-scale virtualization projects which reduce both the energy footprint and the hardware required to manage an organization's data. More efficient cooling strategies such as the use of free cooling in the winter, hot-aisle/cool-aisle rack configurations, rotary flywheel or kinetic Uninterruptible Power Supplies are more efficient than traditional battery-based strategies. The only question is whether the business is sufficiently committed enough to its own strategic direction that it will agree to budget for these changes to enhance its own sustainability. Strategies look good printed on a brass plaque in the reception lobby but often are trivially implemented if they're even implemented at all.

For this reason, Broadbent and Kitzis (2005) suggest replacing the idea of a business strategy with a Maxim. Business maxims "express the shared focus  of the business in actionable terms." (p. 83).

"The difference between a maxim and a strategy is that a strategy represents how an organization is going to compete in its chosen market. Maxims, on the other hand, represent a shared understanding of what needs to happen if the organization is to execute the strategies." (p. 83)

Just like "mom and apple pie", business strategies are often chosen because they sound good, are inoffensive to everyone (who can disagree with "sustainability" or "inspiring students"?), and make for a good rallying cry but they aren't very useful for making tactical, operational decisions.

By decomposing broad strategic visions into business maxims, an organization's executive can reach a point which is to everyone's best interests. But it isn't easy. Engaging in such a process of "strategic decomposition" can result in political posturing as different departments and executive members try to translate these strategic goals into grabs for budget, responsibility, and power. Yet, this is the whole idea behind "actionable terms" and it is an important step if IT and other departments are to understand how to translate the broad strategic goals into tactical initiatives within their own domains.

For this reason, the Enterprise Architect needs to think strategically, not just in IT terms but in business terms as well--and have the diplomacy to engage with executive leadership in articulating these maxims. In most cases, the Architect will need to be an outside consultant so that he or she will not perceived as having any hidden motive or conflict-of-interest as the Architect engages with leadership.

Even if an outside consultant is chosen to work with the executive, an internal Enterprise Architect has an important role in working with the IT department to translate the resulting business maxims into IT maxims.


Broadbent, M. & E. Kitzis (2005).
The New CIO Leader: Setting the Agenda and Delivering Results. Boston:
Harvard Business School Press.