Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Alignment - Science or Pseudoscience?

@RSessions claims that "Simplification occurs when the IT partitions align with the business partitions". But what does alignment mean?

Roger defines alignment as "a measure of how well two patterns overlay on top of each other". But this definition only works between two patterns that already occupy the same space.

For example, I think I know what it means to say that the furniture is aligned with the walls of the room, because I can measure this fact with geometrical instruments (ruler, set square), but if someone says that the colour of the furniture is aligned with the sensibilities of the owner, I can only make sense of this as a vague metaphor rather than a precise measurable fact.

The fallacy of astrology does not lie in the detailed analysis of alignments between the planets and stars - which after all occupy the same astronomical space - but in the notion that the movements of the planets against the stars are somehow aligned with the patterns of human affairs on earth. (And the reason this counts as pseudo-science is that the detailed correlation between sky and earth relies on an interpretation by an astrologer.)

When people talk about business-IT alignment, I can only make sense of this as a metaphor. I am not aware of a robust and meaningful formalization that would permit both business and IT to occupy the same geometrical space, and I can't see the point of inventing one.

All we need is a mapping between two patterns occupying different spaces. An alignment is a special kind of mapping within a fixed geometrical space. If we can't define a fixed geometrical space, then I regard the concept of "alignment" is a misleading metaphor, introducing unnecessary complication. I prefer the general concept of mapping to the false metaphor of alignment.

@aleksb6 objects that my position is "true iff two patterns to map. reality is a M2M relationship, so 'alignment' is not a complication, it's a necessity!" He continues "btw, isn't mapping two patterns just another instance of point-to-point thinking? I thought we wanted to discourage that!"

If alignment doesn't make sense between two things, I can't see that it makes any more sense between three or more things. The desired outcome is a set of structure-preserving mappings between as many things as we need to coordinate. That doesn't mean we can or should design each mapping separately. In all but the most trivial situations, however skilfully we decompose a large problem into subproblems, there is always some coordination (juggling) left to do.

Here's the bottom line. If assertions about business-IT alignment are to mean anything at all, then you have to have a way of looking at a lump of business and a lump of IT and say whether they are aligned or not, and if so how much.

Of course, if you believe you have a modelling language that can express both business and IT, then you might think all you have to do to find out if business and IT are aligned is to compare two models. But this turns out to a circular procedure, because the modelling languages are themselves justified by the claim that they promote business-IT alignment, so we cannot use the modelling languages themselves to prove that business-IT alignment has been achieved. There has to be some point of reference outside the modelling languages.

People keep telling me "alignment" is important, but they can only define it as a woolly and subjective metaphor. So if we stop worrying about "alignment", and talk instead about the various multi-dimensional mappings between a complex system of systems and a complex set of business requirements, we can concentrate on what is objectively important.

And leave the concept of "alignment" for the astrologers. All together now ...
When the Moon is in the 7th house and Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.


Chris Bird said...

ahhh yes alignment. In many ways it is a woolly feel good kind of an idea. But that's the point. It should help us to feel good. It conveys concepts like "have the same goals", "enable each other". These are also woolly concepts. It is easier to look at a pair of ideas and see that they absolutely inhibit each other. But that does depend on worldview.

For instance if my worldview suggests that miscreants be prevented from coming into direct contact with society again, then an open prison with work release is in direct opposition.

However, both execution and strong incarceration (for life because of the "again" observation) are each in some sense aligned with my worldview. Of course worldview is itself a lenscraft piece of thinking, but that's for another day!

I think when we talk about aligned it is more like the Air Force's definition of a Navy formation. 2 aircraft going in the same direction on the same day.

David Sprott said...

Business is complex. We need to get over this and deal with it. Simplification is therefore relative to that inherent complexity. There are many better words and expressions than simple including well structured, straightforward, compartmentalized, loose coupled, suitably generalized etc.

I cannot agree that business IT alignment is a metaphor. A well formed meta model (such as the CBDI SAE-meta model) identifies business artifacts (business objective, business concept, business event, business process etc) and maps these explicitly to services and software artifacts. Further these artifacts are part of a proven, traceable business models to code system. The key to delivering systems that map to the “future” business is to a) deliver to the To-Be models and b) adopt patterns that facilitate (and govern) appropriate levels of generalization , layering, separation . . . .


Richard Veryard said...

I agree with David that business is complex, and I observe that as soon as he wants to say something concrete and precise about this complex business, he uses the word "mapping" instead. If the word "alignment" is not useful here, why should we use it at all?

What I am objecting to is the popular notion that business and IT have to be "lined-up" in some simple way. It is this notion of "lining-up" that I regard as a simplistic superstition.

Ten years ago, at a CBDI Forum meeting, I complained about the notion of Business-IT alignment in the following words.

"There are some organizations where business and IT are perfectly aligned: they are standing side by side, with their heads in the same sand, aligned in a shared sense of complacency. In other organizations, the opposite is true. It is often in the dynamic, progressive organizations where business and IT are furthest apart."

And I went on to talk about Dancing with the Business.

"Neither business nor IT is standing still, each is moving around the other, sometimes elegantly, sometimes clumsily, sometimes one taking the lead, sometimes the other."

CBDI Journal "Interact", May 2000

And as I think Chris's examples also show, "alignment" just isn't the right word to describe the desired relationship.

Richard Veryard said...

As David says, the CBDI SAE-meta model) identifies business artifacts and maps these explicitly to services and software artifacts.

But the word "alignment" seems to imply not only that there is a mapping but that it is a "good" mapping. David's metamodel can be used to link something called CUSTOMER in the business model with something called CUSTOMER SERVICE in the service model, but it doesn't quantify the extent to which the latter satisfies the requirements of the former.

If a method promises to increase "alignment", how should we understand this promise? If we start at 40% alignment and achieve 80% alignment, is that a good result? If so, how do we go about estimating alignment as a percentage? Does this make any sense?

David Sprott said...

In the overwhelming majority of businesses IT projects are sponsored, funded and directed by business managers. Opportunities for measurement of alignment (or better misalignment) may occur 1) as a result of poor requirements specification, 2) between an enterprise and solution architecture, 3) between an As-Is model and To-Be model. But surely these are better managed using existing terminology and processes including governance and architecture continuum (ugh).

Richard Veryard said...

David identifies three different kinds of misalignment we could measure, and suggests that these could all be managed with existing terminology and processes.

And in a comment on the CBDI Forum Linked-In group, Lawrence Wilkes makes a related point - that there are a number of discrete areas to benchmark (which you could then roll back up for an overall score).

Does it make sense to express this in terms of alignment? Given that so many people seem to think alignment is really important, then it would seem that this would be worth trying. Otherwise, I think people should just stop talking about alignment.