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This paper is a critical analysis of two academic papers from peer-reviewed journals, each investigating the Business and IT (BIT) alignment topic that has been a top concern for IT practitioners for two decades (Cahn, 2000). The papers have been selected as they adopt contrasting research strategies – qualitative and quantitative. The objective of this analysis is to highlight the positive/negative points in both papers in terms of the research’s aim, objectives, design, and method and to propose an alternative research strategy for each paper.
The investigation concludes that both papers had positive and negative points, regardless of their philosophical positions and design strategies. Choosing between qualitative and quantitative methods or mixing them depends on the study’s questions; both methodologies have their strengths and weaknesses. The main issue for any research is the credibility of its findings, regardless of the researcher’s philosophical position.
Introduction and Analysis Structure
This paper is a critical analysis of two academic papers from peer-reviewed journals, each investigating the Business and IT (BIT) alignment topic that has been a top concern for IT practitioners for two decades. (Cahn, 2000) For many years, a number of researchers have emphasised the importance of BIT fit in organisations to achieve competitive advantage (Luftman et al., 2005). Reich & Benbasat (1996) define alignment as the degree of IT strategy necessary to support a business’s mission, objectives and plans.
Many studies have been conducted to understand and assess the relationship between business and IT in organisations, most of which have adopted a quantitative methodology to validate empirically the relationship between IT investment and organisational performance and to provide credible evidence of the positive impact of aligning IT strategy to business strategy. Therefore, it was difficult to find a good qualitative research paper in this area (Cahn, 2000). The first paper (paper 1), entitled ‘Understanding the business-IT relationship’ (Coughlan et al., 2005), follows a qualitative methodology and the second paper (paper 2), entitled ‘Factors affecting IT and Business alignment: a comparative study in SMEs and large organisations’ (Gutierrez et al., 2009), follows a quantitative methodology.
It is important to note that this work is not a comparison of the two papers; therefore, the papers are analysed separately to achieve a clearer picture. This paper is organised in the following way. Section 3 covers paper 1, highlighting its positive/negative points in terms of the research’s aim, objectives, design, and method. In addition, an alternative research strategy is proposed. Section 4 covers paper 2 in a similar way. The conclusions and implications of adopting different research strategies are discussed in section 5.
This paper provides an insight into the Business and IT (BIT) relationship (alignment) in organisations taking “a communication-based view on the concept of BIT alignment” (Coughlan et al., 2005:303). In other words, it provides contextual insight into the BIT relationship, with particular reference to the organisational communication process. The authors noted that organisations need to develop and sustain a strong BIT relationship to benefit from the value-added development in today’s demanding economy. BIT alignment is a complex process that involves creating many crossover links between different parts of the organisation and requires a strong BIT relationship. However, this relationship has suffered a divide that stems from the failure to justify high IT expenditure compared to business benefit. According to Coughlan et al. (2005), communication problems are the main contributor to the BIT relationship divide; therefore, a social-oriented approach was proposed to understand the flow of information in organisations. This is an interpretive research paper adopting a case study strategy with which to collect and analyse qualitative data via semi-structured interviews, in order to achieve an in-depth understanding of the communication process in the BIT relationship context. The lack of the literature’s attention to communication issues in the BIT relationship context was the driver for this inductive approach (Saunders et al., 2007).
The research aim is to provide insight into the Business and IT (BIT) relationship in organisations via the following objectives:
- “Identifying the areas and issues that affect communications in organisations” (Coughlan et al., 2005:307).
- “Categorising communication issues in organisations” (Coughlan et al., 2005:306).
- “Mapping the connections between organisational issues to the way in which they relate to IT” (Coughlan et al., 2005:306).
- Investigating “how different facets of the communication process interact in real life” (Coughlan et al., 2005:307).
Rationale for conducting this study
The importance of the research topic was well justified by addressing the following points:
- Communication problems within the BIT relationship context are a major concern for both researchers and practitioners (Coughlan et al., 2005).
- Communication problems are a main contributor to the BIT relationship divide (Coughlan et al., 2005).
- Poor BIT communications are normal in the financial sector; therefore, the banking industry has created a new organisational role – the Relationship Manager (RM) – to deal with relationship communication problems (Coughlan et al., 2005).
- Despite the importance of communication within the BIT relationship and implications for the RM’s role, there has been little attention given in the literature (Coughlan et al., 2005).
- Previous social studies (structuration theory and actor network theory) have provided theoretical analyses of the complexity between an organisation and its IT infrastructure, therefore a more practical approach required to empower practitioners with solutions.
A four-dimensional communication framework (PICTURE), based on Shannon & Weaver’s (1994) classic model of communications, was used to guide the study. PICTURE was originally devised to improve IT system design: “The acronym PICTURE represents real life communication components and their application: (1) Participation and selection; (2) Interaction; (3) Communications activities; (4) Techniques Used for Relationship Establishment”. (Coughlan et al., 2005:306). The framework was used to guide the identification of important areas in the complex communication process. A clearly articulated conceptual framework is an important tool for guiding semi- structured interview themes, and provides a structured approach to interpreting the findings (Smyth, 2004).
The study was conducted on a major high street UK bank, referred to as ‘FinCo’ for reasons of confidentiality. Furthermore, the study was conducted at one point in time, focusing on two key areas of the organisation – retail banking and IT. The retail banking division was chosen specifically because it is the biggest customer of the IT division, and research suggests that retail banking has deep organisational divisions (Coughlan et al., 2005).
FinCo is an informative case for the following reasons:
- It has a rapid and extensive uptake of IT.
- IT is closely integrated into the organisation to support its information management processes.
- FinCo starting a relation management programme to facilitate BIT communications.
- FinCo has separated BID activities, creating a divide.
Yin (2003 34-14) defined a case study as “an empirical inquiry which investigates a phenomenon within its dynamic real life context to allow researchers to understand complex issues, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident”.
A case study strategy with underlying interpretive philosophical assumptions was an appropriate choice for this study, since the aim of this work is “to provide insight into the Business and IT (BIT) relationship in organisations” (Coughlan et al., 2005:303), adopting a “behavioural and social-oriented view, with communication difficulties featuring as a major determinant” (Coughlan et al., 2005:304).
The authors addressed the framework limitation by noting that the framework was used in this study to identify areas that affect the communication process – and not as a measurement tool. Recognising and noting the research limitations is always good practice, as it gives future researchers a starting point to continue the study in this area.
Research Method and Data Collection
According to Coughlan et al. (2005), the communication process is dynamic and complex, involving individuals with different perspectives. A qualitative data collection method was adopted to provide deep understanding of the process’s state, with reference to FinCo’s retail and IT relationship. This method is appropriate because it focuses on uncovering participants’ perceptions and experiences, which are difficult to uncover with a quantitative method (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2002).
Coughlan et al. (2005) used semi-structured interviews to collect data, which were conducted with top-level managers from both retail banking and IT to capture their perceptions of both organisational areas. Each interview session lasted an hour based on a set of prepared questions and extra questions to expand on the relevant question. The questions were designed to probe for experiences, thoughts and opinions relating to BIT relationship perceptions. There was no explanation as to why the semi-structured interview methodology was chosen over unstructured interview or focus group methodologies, which are better suited as unstructured interviews are often used in case studies to uncover information without limiting the field of inquiry (Punch, 2005).
Although Coughlan et al. (2005) noted that the interviews covered the spectrum of top-level managers, there was no mention of the sampling method used to justify the chosen number of interviews. My assumption is that the judgemental sampling method was used, since it is a very popular choice in qualitative research and involves the choice of participants who are in the best position to provide the required information (Saunders et al., 2007).
The authors did not discuss reliability, which is a common criticism of qualitative researches. However, qualitative researches argue that reliability is not an issue in qualitative methodology because research replication is not feasible due to the complexity of the research topic and context. Nevertheless, credibility could have been promoted through any of the following: audio recording of the interviews to reduce interviewer bias during data analysis (Ghauri & Gronhaug, 2002); providing the interviewees with a list of interview themes to allow them to gather supporting organisational documents that could be used as secondary data (Triangulation); using a respondent validation technique by submitting research findings to the interviewees to confirm that the findings represent the social reality (Bryman & Bell, 2007).
Alternative Research Strategy
The research problem should always drive the research method (Cryer, 2006). As discussed earlier, the aim of the study is to provide insight into the Business and IT (BIT) relationship in organisations identifying relevant areas and the issues (variables) that affect communications in organisations. A pure quantitative strategy is not an option for this study, as this can only be used when the study’s variables are identified clearly. In other words, researchers generally have a very clear idea on what is being measured before they start measuring it. Nevertheless, a mixed methodology can be used to improve confidence in findings and to overcome qualitative strategy limitations. Mixed method studies attempt to bring together methods from contrasting research strategies. The authors could have started with a qualitative research method, e.g. in-depth interviews with BIT managers from different organisational levels followed by a thematic content analysis of the transcribed interview material to help understand and identify communication issues in the organisation. Once they identify the communication areas and issues with reference to the BIT relationship in this organisation, they can test the credibility of the findings by conducting a questionnaire survey of other BIT managers in other organisations. An online questionnaire with close-ended questions is best here for ease of administration. Qualitative and quantitative methods can be complementary when used in sequence (Bryman & Bell, 2007).
The research objectives and questions were not explicitly or clearly exhibited in this paper. In a well structured research paper, a research objective should be clearly defined and expressed within the research purpose section, and it is very important to clearly define the research questions to help form research objectives (Saunders et al., 2007).
A comprehensive literature review was conducted to justify the importance of the research topic. A case study strategy with unstructured interviews would have been more suitable for an interpretive approach, but the research method section was very short, which affected transferability; qualitative researchers are encouraged to provide a detailed description of their methodology and findings to give others the option of adapting these findings to their environment. For example, a clear mapping between PICTURE components and the semi-structured interview questions would add more credibility to the study (Bryman & Bell, 2007).
The main aim of this study is to “identify the organisational size impact on the way they perceive Business and IT strategic alignment and the relationship between the alignment factors and their planning integration strategy” (Gutierrez et al., 2009).
Gutierrez et al. 2009 noted that IT alignment remains one of the top issues for top-level IT managers, and for the past two decades many studies on Business and IT alignment have been conducted, starting with alignment definition, how to achieve it, factors affecting it, and its value to organisations. Most of these studies provided a theoretical understanding of this process, and a few of them provided practical solutions to measure alignment; however, these models could not be generalised as they were case-specific.
According to Gutierrez et al. (2009), various alignment factors have been identified, e.g. prior IS success, the communication level between business executives, domain-shared knowledge and planning integration. Most of these studies were based on large organisations.
The research approach is positivistic, seeking to identify and measure the importance of the business and IT alignment factors (variables) with reference to organisational size. It utilises an appropriate quantitative methodology, i.e. conducting a survey of a sample of top-level management respondents to collect data via an online questionnaire (Saunders et al., 2007).
A positive aspect of the study is that the objectives were clearly depicted as below:
- “To identify whether small, medium and large enterprises have different perceptions as to which of the factors described by Luftman (2000) in the strategic alignment model (SAM) are more relevant to attain alignment” (Gutierrez et al., 2009:198).
- “To identify whether there are any correlations between the factors and the planning integration strategy adopted in the organisations” (Gutierrez et al., 2009:198).
Although the research objectives were clearly defined in this paper, the research questions were not explicitly or clearly exhibited. Clear research questions leave the reader in no doubt as to exactly what the study seeks to achieve (Saunders et al., 2007).
Gutierrez et al. (2009) analysed many scholarly alignment assessment models systematically, which were categorised to identify practical models that used data analysis to score factors affecting alignment. The analyses helped to identify four sets of authors – Reich & Benbasat 2000, Hussin et al. (2002), Chan et al. (2006) and Sledgianowski et al. (2006) – whose models are appropriate for the context of the study (see Appendix1). The latter’s work was based on Luftman’s Strategic Alignment Model (SAM).
The authors demonstrated that a critical literature review was conducted to justify the choice of Luftman’s SAM and to include organisational size and planning integration factors, as they were not explored in enough detail. Justifying the above measures is a positive aspect of the paper (Saunders et al., 2007, p.54).
Gutierrez et al. (2009) chose SAM as an assessment model for this research for the following reasons:
- It can be used to assess any level of alignment in an organisation.
- It has been validated via Sledgianowski et al. (2006)’s extensive study.
- It covered most of the alignment factors used in the other three models (see Appendix A).
The study adopted a comparative cross-sectional design to collect quantitative data from a large number of cases (managers) at a single point of time; the data were related to predefined variables (factors and attributes) (Bryman & Bell, 2007).
Research Method and Data Collection
An initial questionnaire with twenty-one questions was tested by twenty-two professionals to assess the participants’ understanding of it. The feedback resulted in changing the questionnaire to include only twelve relevant questions to map to SAM factors: “communication, competency/value measurement, governance, partnership, scope and skills” (Gutierrez et al., 2009:203). In addition, the analysis of the pilot test data confirmed the importance of planning integration and its three stages – independent, sequential and simultaneous. Pilot testing is crucial to a self-administered questionnaire in order to ensure there are no problems with the questions. Furthermore, it enables the researcher to assess the questions’ validity and the reliability of the collected data. An additional short questionnaire could have been used to obtain structured feedback (Saunders et al., 2007).
Gutierrez et al. (2009) explained that conducting an online survey with a standardised set of questions was appropriate for this study, as there is no room for individual interpretation and it provides easy access to a large number of participants in different geographical locations. This is a positive point in terms of justifying the choice of the research method, but there was no explicit explanation as to the relationship between this method and the implicit positivistic research approach. This is a general criticism of quantatative papers.
While Gutierrez et al. (2009) discussed the reasons for choosing executives, managers and top managers as targeted participants, it was not clear as to whether they were business or IT managers. This distinction should have been made very clear, as the questionnaire was designed to measure both IT and business people’s perceptions of the alignment factors’ importance, e.g. in the communication factor section of the questionnaire, participants were asked to rate two attributes. The first question rated the understanding of business strategies by the IT department (this should be answered by IT people to accurately represent the reality), while the second question rated the understanding of IT capabilities by the business department (this should be answered by business people) (Gutierrez et al., 2009:205). This is a two-way measurement and requires participants from both sides – this is an extremely negative point that could affect the findings’ reliability and validity and could have been avoided by either describing the targeted participants in more depth, i.e. justifying this choice in terms of their suitability to provide representative answers, or by redesigning the questionnaire so that some questions could be answered by different respondent categories.
Neither the limitations nor the sampling process are discussed. It is important to follow a sampling process that includes the following sequential activities: defining the population, choosing a sampling frame, selecting a sampling method, determining sample size, specifying an operational plan, and finally executing the plan. Following this process will help in achieving a representative sample and consequently help the researcher to be confident about the study’s findings. Another positive outcome of this process is the ability to calculate the response rate, which is a decisive factor in evaluating the reliability of survey results, i.e. findings are seen as more accurate if the response rate is high. The response rate was mentioned very briefly: “organisations around the world were requested to participate in the survey by telephone to achieve a better response rate” (Gutierrez et al., 2009:206). In addition, the data collection section mentioned that a total number of 161 responses were collected and only complete questionnaires were used for data analysis.
The questionnaire design was appropriate in terms of including the study’s identified alignment factors. It had two parts, the first of which contained questions with regards to the respondents’ organisational profiles and the level of planning integration. The second part covered the factors’ prioritisation. Another positive aspect of the research design is that organisational size was defined to achieve consistency when referring to a small, medium or large organisation.
The data collection section was very brief; hence it would be very difficult to replicate the study. Moreover, the phrase “organisations around the world” (Gutierrez et al., 2009:205) is a very weak description of the population. According to Gutierrez et al. (2009), a total number of 161 responses were collected and only 104 complete questionnaires were used for the data analysis. The data collection section should be detailed to allow for replication, which provides some assurance of the results’ validity, reliability and generalisability. In addition, Gutierrez et al. (2009) used the term “survey” instead of “questionnaire” on more than one occasion throughout the paper. It should have been noted that there is a clear distinction between a survey and questionnaire – the first is a method and the second is a tool used for this method (Saunders et al., 2007).
Alternative Research Strategy
The research strategy should always be driven by the research aim. An interpretive qualitative strategy is not applicable in this study, as the main objective of this study is to measure the relationship between well-defined variables. Qualitative methods are used mainly to study human behaviour and behaviour changes, and are more applicable if the research topic is new and there is not much in the literature to guide the researcher. As discussed earlier, many studies on Business and IT alignment factors have been conducted for the past two decades, during the process of which the alignment factors have been identified.
This paper is well structured in general and the research objectives clear. However, the research questions did not explicitly present the research strategy. The research design had a few negative points, e.g. a targeted population and the size were not defined clearly. Ideally, research papers should include a measure and measurement section to address the targeted population, concept indicators and instrument reliability and validity. However, not all researchers follow the recommended practices, e.g. some rarely provide information about stability tests and measurement validity and only 3% of research papers provide measurement validity information (Bryman & Bell, 2007). The data collection method is appropriate for achieving the research objectives, as conducting a survey is a popular choice amongst positivist methods. Nevertheless, a clear justification for the choice of this data collection method in the light of the research design would add more credibility to the paper. No attention was given to error control, e.g. sampling-related and data collection errors. The best part of the paper is the abstract section, which is very structured and clear.
Additional structured interviews with Business and IT executives in other similar organisations, utilising the same questions used in the questionnaire, would help in overcoming the above gaps and confirm the study’s findings.
Two research papers that followed contrasting research methodologies were analysed critically. Both papers had positive and negative points, regardless of their philosophical positions and design strategies. In any credible research paper, well-defined and clear objectives are vital, as they should lead the research design and, consequently, the method. Hence, defining the research problem is the first and most important step of the research process, as it is highly likely that an unsuitable research design and method will be selected if the research problems are not defined clearly. Choosing between qualitative and quantitative methods or mixing them depends on the study’s questions; both methodologies have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, qualitative research provides complex textual descriptions of people’s behaviour that can’t be provided by a contrasting methodology, since quantitative research focuses frequently on the study of meanings in the form of attitude scales.
The main issue of any research is the credibility of its findings, regardless of the researcher’s philosophical position. This can be achieved by utilising multi methods (data collection triangulation within the same research strategy) or mixed methods (qualitative followed by quantitative and vice versa) (Saunders et al., 2007). Researchers are trying to find effective ways to incorporate elements of the contrasting strategies to ensure the accuracy of their studies. As a result, mixed, or combined, methodology research is becoming increasingly popular in the business and management field (Bryman & Bell, 2007).
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