Taking up Three Challenges to Business-IT Alignment Research by the Use of Activity Theory

Taking up Three Challenges to Business-IT Alignment Research by the Use of Activity Theory

Andy Weeger (Neu-Ulm University of Applied Sciences, Neu-Ulm, Germany) and Ulrich Haase (University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/IJITBAG.2016070101
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This paper offers a novel view on the business-IT alignment that takes on the three major challenges of prior research: theory, process and applicability. The theoretical deliberations and empirical data of a single in-depth case study shows that taking an activity theoretical lens offers a way to conceptualize the mechanisms, triggers and complexities of business-IT alignment that enhance our understanding of the alignment process and reveal important implications for practice. Building on activity theory and the notion of interrelated activity systems, the authors propose to view business and IT as two distinct, yet related activity systems that co-evolve over time. Moreover, they show that business-IT alignment can be understood as a process of continuous adjustments between the two collective, pragmatic, contested and situated activity systems of business and IT. Examining data spanning six years of transformation processes, the authors systematically increase their understanding of the processes and underlying mechanisms of aligning business and IT. These insights are facilitated via the conceptualization of the alignment as a process aimed to reduce contradictions and tensions within and between the linked activity systems of business and IT. The theoretical deliberations and empirical evidence show that AT provides a strong theoretical foundation and a robust framework that is able to facilitate rigorous process-oriented studies, whose findings can guide endeavors of detecting and approaching misalignments in practice.
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Aligning business and information technology (IT) is a long-standing issue of discussion both in information systems (IS) research and practice (Yolande E. Chan & Reich, 2007; Kappelman, McLean, Luftman, & Johnson, 2013). In general, striving for business-IT alignment means that organizations utilize IT resources in a way that they efficiently enable or support business strategies, objectives, infrastructures and processes and thus create value for the firm (Yolande E. Chan, Huff, Barclay, & Copeland, 1997; Coltman, Tallon, Sharma, & Queiroz, 2015; Sabherwal & Chan, 2001). Cultivating business-IT alignment is, for instance, expected to intensify utilization of IT, increase profitability and generate sustainable competitive advantage (Gerow, Thatcher, & Grover, 2014b; Grover S. Kearns & Lederer, 2003). In contrast, failing to evolve business-IT alignment could lead to poor resource allocation and failed IT initiatives, which adversely affects firm performance (Chen, Mocker, Preston, & Teubner, 2010; Ravishankar, Pan, & Leidner, 2011).

Although, more than 30 years of cumulative research in this field offers strong empirical evidence that organizations revealing high levels of business-IT alignment outperform those with low levels (Yolande E. Chan et al., 1997; Yolande E. Chan & Reich, 2007; Henderson & Venkatraman, 1999; G. S. Kearns & Lederer, 2000; Yayla & Hu, 2011), we seem to be still far from solving the riddle of how to synchronize the efforts of business and information technology (IT) in practice (Grant, 2010). Various reasons for this observation have been brought forward, particularly too mechanistic views of business-IT alignment (Grant, 2010), missing applicability of findings (Vermerris, Mocker, & van Heck, 2014) and, perhaps most importantly, a lack of strong and effective theoretical foundations (Yolande E. Chan & Reich, 2007; Luftman, Lyytinen, & Zvi, 2015).

Intended to find a way of conceptualizing the evolving reciprocal relationship between business and IT that takes on the three major challenges of prior research, we propose a new theoretical perspective on business-IT alignment based on cultural historical Activity Theory (AT). We then show how the tenets of AT enhance our understanding of the process and underlying mechanisms of business-IT alignment within organizational complexities. Moreover, we demonstrate how these concepts can guide alignment efforts in practice.

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. First, we discuss recent developments in the field of business IT-alignment research and lay out its three major challenges. Second, following a succinct introduction of AT, we outline our activity theoretical perspective on business-IT alignment. Then, the context of our case study as well as our methods are briefly presented. We then continue to report on our findings and discuss the emerging insights. Finally, we discuss the limitations of our study as well as its practical and theoretical contributions.

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