13 years, 6 months ago

Strategy by Design

Great tweet from @judyrees this morning. “Metaphor can create powerful insights that become distortions, as the way of seeing created through metaphor becomes a way of not seeing.”

When people talk about the “alignment” or “gap” between business and technology, is this just a rhetorical metaphor, or is it supposed to have a literal meaning?

I can easily understand the concepts of “alignment” and “gap” when we are talking about similar things in the same space. For example, there is a gap between my house and the house next door, and both are roughly aligned with the houses opposite. I understand what these terms mean geometrically (literally “earth-measurement”) and could measure them to a reasonable degree of accuracy.

However, if someone started to talk about the “alignment” between his love life and the works of Shakespeare, I could only really make sense of this as an interesting metaphor. It would be absurd to try and measure this kind of alignment using geometrical instruments.

In order to take the notion of business-IT alignment seriously (i.e. as more than just a metaphor), we have to have some way of understanding “business” and IT” to be similar objects within the same kind of space. One possible way of doing this would be to define a distance relationship between the IT department and other parts of the organization, in terms of the interaction and coordination between separate organization units. As it happens, I did some work in the 1990s on enterprise modelling, where we experimented with the notion of “interaction distance”, although I think I’d now call this “collaboration distance”.

This is perhaps what is implied in a recent Strategy+Business article, which identified enterprise architecture as a way of “closing the distance between IT departments and business units” [Hugo Trepant and Daniel Newman, Strategy by Design, August 2010, via @andrewtuson].

The notion of collaboration distance can also be used to help understand the degree of alignment or misalignment between separate business organizations in the context of a complex business relationship – for example the relationship between Ford and Firestone. (See my post on Supplier Abuse.)

An alternative interpretation comes from George Ambler (@CIOLeader) who suggests that “it is the mindset gap between biz and IT that’s the biggest gap of all”. To interpret this literally, one would need a way of measuring the distance between two mindsets, and comparing distances between three, but at least we are talking here about notional alignments and gaps between instances of a common class.

Where I have greatest problems with the notion of business-IT alignment is where “business” and “IT” are spoken of as complex wholes apparently occupying completely different spaces. Of course, one possible tactic for enterprise architects is to produce a simplified representation of “business” and a simplified representation of “IT” within a chosen EA framework or modelling language, and then to define “alignment” in terms of some congruence relationship between the two representations. But we should be both surprised and deeply unimpressed if enterprise architecture were unable to manufacture this kind of simplified alignment, and we should be wary of circular arguments that promote the value and validity of these frameworks in terms of alignment while simultaneously defining alignment in terms of these frameworks.

Finally, I want to draw attention to a significant weakness in current enterprise architecture thinking and practice. Despite the constant rhetoric of alignment, the models and frameworks in common use provide no basis for reasoning about alignment, with all its costs and complexities. Enterprise architects profess to understand structure, but there are some important aspects of structure that are generally not addressed.