Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is Alignment the Missing Link for Business Success?

One of the primary responsibilities of business leaders is to ensure that their organisations are more successful tomorrow than they are today. They have access to various business tools to help them achieve this goal, including strategy development and implementation; talent management; leadership development; communication strategies; risk analysis; etc. 

And for each of these key business tools there are a multitude of potential solutions offered by a mass of consultancy companies of all shapes and sizes; as well as a host of research findings from competing academic institutions, all offering a solution that might be right for your organisation – if you could only understand what they were actually trying to say and how you should implement it effectively in your organisation. To the extent that many business leaders, especially at the sme level, are rightly skeptical of many of the solutions currently on the table and the price tags they often come with. 

Yet it seems the biggest problem – and possibly the missing link – in optimising business performance is ‘alignment’.  

It might sound obvious that business processes and systems need to be aligned to the organisations vision and goals to ensure they not only optimise performance; but that they also have a real-time ‘aligned’ information flow throughout the company and beyond. Yet some of the largest companies in the world have experienced times when they have invested in the ‘best’ systems and processes in the market only to find that these ‘best’ systems simply didn’t talk to each other – leading to sub-optimal information transfer throughout the company. 

Alignment should be one of the core criteria in strategic thinking; risk analysis thinking; organizational design; process flow; and information technology. Yet surprisingly it is a word that is seldom used outside of the ‘classroom’ and is why organisations of all sizes struggle with optimizing their performance. 

Part of the problem is that alignment of information technology and process flow costs money – and with many organisations still struggling to rebuild and reinvent themselves in the aftermath of the financial crisis – alignment can be viewed as a low priority at this point in time. The ‘internal dialogue’ being that we have managed to survive with these systems or processes not talking to each other up to now – and we’ll just have to ‘make do’ until we can afford to ‘invest in aligning the systems’. Also because there is often a lack of knowledge about ‘aligned’ systems anyway, there is distrust about whether alignment of IT systems specifically is even possible. 

But alignment goes beyond systems and actually starts with people. If your people aren’t aligned to your vision – whether it’s a team’s vision; a department’s vision; a branches vision; or the organisations vision – you will not be performing at your optimum and could in fact have different teams ‘pulling’ in different directions – simply because they are not aligned to the organizational vision and goals. 

Alignment goes beyond communication, involvement and even understanding of an organisations vision, strategy and goals – as alignment ensures that everyone in every position is aligned with everyone else to work together to achieve certain aims. 

It’s a simple concept and unfortunately too often taken for granted after the strategic plan has been rolled out across the organizational structure. But it needs the CEO or a dedicated representative to follow up to ensure the employees at all levels are fully aligned with each other. Otherwise all that happens is one department goes off faster than another – fully understanding their role in the strategic vision (at least within their team) and driving on feeling positive about their involvement – but without realising that their lack of alignment with other departments or individuals is in fact having a negating effect on the organisations optimal performance. 

This lack of alignment can have serious consequences on the organisation as it doesn’t only impact performance but more often than not has a significant impact on motivation and morale – whereby even in those rare organisations that the organisation has full buy-in to their strategy and an understanding from all the staff of what has to be done – the lack of alignment can quite quickly derail the process leading to real confusion and a lack of motivation throughout the organisation – to the extent that the original strategy and exciting future for the organisation doesn’t look so exciting anymore. 

All this because alignment hasn’t been sort and/or monitored on a regular basis – as the original exciting future is still there – the only thing that has changed is the organisations morale.  

So it’s worth spending time to check alignment between people and departments on a regular basis to keep performance and motivation high and in sync with the original strategic vision. And then ensure all the systems and processes are also aligned to give the organisation the right ‘tools’ to meet their objectives.

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