Brian Cohen is CEO of StrataCloud.
We’ve been talking about business-IT alignment for as long as the term “IT” has been around. Back in the day, before the cloud and mobile apps were central to IT strategy, it was easy to pay lip service to the IT department’s mandate to “work with the business.” After all, IT still made most of the decisions and users didn’t have much choice other than to accept them.
My, how things have changed. Now business people have the know-how and the power to go it alone when it comes to information technology. Once shadow IT began to proliferate at many companies, CIOs had a choice: they could rein it in (an unpopular decision) or just roll with it (introducing security, complexity and cost risks). Yet savvy CIOs know that there’s a middle ground in which business units can still have a healthy dose of freedom and flexibility. IT should still play a central role in guiding and managing technology decisions in light of business risks, existing technology infrastructure, budgets and overarching business goals.
The CIO’s job is too big to give enough attention to the day-to-day workings of business alignment in a large company. IT departments can look to hire or promote from within a business relationship manager (BRM) who can effectively bring business requirements and goals back to the IT department for prioritization and delivery. He or she also presents ideas and strategies to the business to help meet objectives in a services-oriented fashion. The BRM helps manage requests in the context of standardization and integration requirements. While not a new concept in IT, the BRM is a role that has never been more important than today, as many IT organizations are leading their companies on a journey of digital transformation.
Finding and Nurturing BRMs
The BRM is someone who is a promoter—of IT and the capabilities it can bring to help the business achieve its goals. That means that the individual is someone who should have a solid understanding of the business – its vertical, its competition, its challenges and its customers. BRMs are tenacious and diplomatic, with a sales orientation to their jobs. In some respects they are similar to a product manager – possessing a deep understanding of the technology portfolio, along with an equally strong grasp of customer needs. We have seen BRMs come from sales, accounting, operations and IT departments alike. While the individual does not need technical skills per se, analytical skills and the ability to translate business requirements into product or service specifications are highly valuable. BRMs can help guide a company through change in a balanced and objective way.
BRMs can even help navigate politically charged environments. Several years ago, a Fortune 50 company needed to reorganize multiple business units and go through an overall downsizing exercise during a tough business climate. In order to do so, the company required access to sales performance data across multiple business units that wasn’t readily available. Without the good fortune of having BRMs, the business unit leads would have delivered arbitrary advice on how they should spend the new budget and which projects should be shuttered. Instead, the BRMs, who understood the priorities of the business units and also understood how IT worked in regard to dependencies, the cost of shutting down inflight projects and so on, came up with the most efficient and achievable plan. This involved prioritizing internal IT resources and third-party software and consultants to gain access to data and complete the projects deemed most important to the business. The net result was a data-driven corporate reorg that took place in approximately 120 days, and which would not have been possible without the liaison work of the BRMs.
Helping the BRM Succeed
As mentioned above, a BRM can be highly effective through being opportunistic and anticipating business needs. A great way to get started is to develop a plan for each business unit or group, containing goals, measures and deadlines. Both IT and the business sponsor need to sign off on the plan, and the BRM should be accountable for helping facilitate and document progress. Metrics should relate squarely to the business: for instance, the success of a new customer self-service portal can be measured by tracking whether it improves customer satisfaction and reduces costs, and by how much.
The role of the BRM is an exciting, visible one. He or she could be closely involved with revenue-driving initiatives, such as loyalty programs or developing new technology-based services. The BRM may even help drive the business in a new direction that had not been envisioned previously, through their in-depth knowledge of the latest and upcoming technologies. BRMs may also help build best practices across an organization by piloting a service for one business unit, such as a new customer communications tool, which later expands into other divisions.
Increasingly, the IT department as a whole should be focused on partnering with the business, and re-aligning all processes, skills and services toward discrete business and customer needs. Yet the reality is, IT culture is hard to change and technology-specific tasks are all-consuming. Most IT staffers have plenty on their plate in regard to analyzing quickly-changing technology trends and optimizing results in areas such as cloud computing and software defined infrastructure. Through hiring or appointing a BRM for key lines of business, the CIO has the help of a uniquely qualified team who can straddle both sides of the fence while keeping a constant pulse on business needs and marketplace opportunities.
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