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For a professional services organization (PSO), strategic alignment has always been hard enough. Under the best of circumstances, it’s difficult to be in full alignment with the company’s overall strategy. But it becomes that much harder in dynamic, uncertain times. When the industry or economy or the world itself is undergoing unprecedented change, the hard becomes the nearly impossible. Does this sound familiar? Recognizing any patterns here? Let me explain.  

The Language of Strategic Alignment

The problem of alignment – the state of being in a position of agreement or alliance – is not unique to the tech industry or to professional services. But when it comes to alignment between stakeholders outside and within professional services, alignment has been and continues to be uniquely elusive. Why is this? To unpack this, we need to understand the language of PS strategic alignment. 

Figure 1: The Language of PS Strategic Alignment
 Figure 1: The Language of PS Strategic Alignment
Both vertical and horizontal are critical but the lynchpin is clearly vertical alignment. For PS leadership to have any hope of robust, lasting horizontal alignment within the PSO, clear alignment with external or executive stakeholders around the core mission and purpose of professional services is required, and with that comes substantial obstacles.

First Obstacle to Alignment: Basic Tech Organizational Dynamics

Tech companies are tech companies because they have invented solutions (hardware, software, or some combination) that solve technical or business problems. These solutions are typically complex and require services motions that help customers stand up and use the solutions. Yes, the solutions themselves are becoming more like “services” (see the discussion below for more on this), but implementation, support, education, and customer success remain services bits that are separate and distinct from the core solution. With this, you wind up with a blend of core technology and a supporting set of services activities within companies that are not services companies. This produces the basic dynamics of the alignment problem. 

If your company’s solutions consist of a mix of product and services (yours or someone else’s), there are some natural, predictable barriers to full alignment between professional services and stakeholders outside of professional services. Stakeholders within and without professional services are simply bound to bring different conceptions, biases, and ideas to the table. Stacking hands on the PS charter is just tough in our context, hard enough to justify a “full stop.” But wait, there’s more! 

Second Obstacle to Alignment: Industry Transformation

TSIA has been documenting industry transformation for many years now, including countless publications, presentations, and a handful of best-selling books. We’ve described in detail fundamental changes in the supplier-customer relationship, in technology consumption models, and in the underlying economics of the technology industry.  

Think about it this way. The PS team needs to receive and understand a clear charter that reflects its role in helping the company and customers achieve their objectives. That’s difficult as a matter of basic organizational dynamics due to the fact that many different stakeholders will be weighing in. 

Now imagine (well, you don’t have to imagine, you’re probably living it) the same requirement for strategic alignment, except that the basic principles of tech operating and financial models are rapidly and dramatically changing. This has been an apt description of the context for PS strategic alignment for much of the last 10 years. The result is either a perpetual state of misalignment and thrashing, or temporary reprieves in which there is reasonable alignment for a time until conditions, leaders, or fortunes change, thereby destroying whatever tenuous alignment there was.  

Latest Obstacle to Alignment: Pandemic-Caused Global Disruption

In a manner of speaking, PS horizontal alignment is about the PSO discerning a clear charter aligned to the company’s overall strategy and executing it. Basic tech organizational and operational dynamics create a big obstacle to this clarity and related execution. Industry transformation creates an additional layer of obstacle, preventing PSOs from gaining and executing on a clear charter. Now we’re seeing what happens when you throw a sudden, dramatic, global disruption in the mix. The hard becomes the nearly impossible.

TSIA has spent the last several months rapidly pivoting our research and data collection to produce nearly real time insights on how tech companies are handling the COVID-19 pandemic. More or less overnight, tech companies have had to adapt to radically different, rapidly changing circumstances.

Figure 2:  COVID-19 Trends in the Tech Industry
 Figure 3:  COVID-19 Trends in the Tech Industry
Just the primary trends accelerated by the pandemic are listed in the above figure. All of these trends had been presenting themselves before March 2020. All of them have been stunningly accelerated by the pandemic. All of them complicate and hamper strategic alignment between company and PSO stakeholders.  

In my Power Hour session during the upcoming TSIA Interact conference, I’ll be fleshing out these dynamics and will be offering a broad set of recommendations and best practices. I’d like to offer some general guidance now as well.
  1. Alignment is a Process. Except for those exceedingly rare instances where the proverbial stars happen to converge in the heavens, PS strategic alignment doesn’t just happen on its own.  Alignment requires a deliberate process and a commitment across a variety of stakeholders to try and get there. But if that is a heroic event, the accomplishment will be fleeting. Alignment is a process, not an event, and must have all the trappings and components of a mature process to provide any hope of ongoing success.
  2. The Process Needs to be Agile. In a COVID-19 influenced context, the process mentioned above needs to be far more mature and frankly, far more agile, as compared to the good old days when we merely had to account for built-in product company and old-school industry transformation barriers to alignment. That’s because the dynamism now imbued in the context is greater than even one year ago. This means that the PS charter and strategic alignment around that charter needs to be validated (and possibly tweaked) on an essentially ongoing basis. A big annual alignment event will not do. Not today. Not any longer. Expect that your alignment needs may change, perhaps with the next announcement of a possible vaccine. It’s not convenient, but it’s life today.  
Again, I’ll be sharing more in October. In the meantime, try to come to a certain level of peace with the ride. The accelerated trends articulated above only elevate the role of PS and the need for highly outcome-driven, highly adaptable professional services. In fact, once this realization settles in more broadly in the organization, maybe alignment won’t be so hard after all?  

Learn More About PS Alignment at TSIA Interact

At our upcoming TSIA Interact virtual conference, taking place October 20-22, TSIA members and attendees will be covering this topic and more in detail, sharing additional data, real-world best practices, and pitfalls to avoid. Be sure to register today to take advantage of the valuable insights you can look forward to in our Professional Services track.
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Bo Di Muccio

About Author Bo Di Muccio

Bo Di Muccio, Ph.D., distinguished vice president of Professional Services research and vice president of TSIA advisory delivery. He is also the chairperson of the TSIA Professional Services Advisory Board. Using his nearly 15 years of experience in technology industry research, analysis, and consulting, Di Muccio develops and delivers research and advisory programs that help some of the world’s leading technology companies build and optimize their professional services business.

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