Perfecting the IT-Business Partnership

By Shvetank Shah Print this article Print

Does your organization need a special liaison to make a key relationship run smoothly?

Changes in the breadth of technology use (by more people, in more places, for a greater proportion of work and personal tasks) and a transformation in technology delivery models have put stress on the relationship between IT and business partners. As a result, the IT–business interface is broken and needs to be fixed. Enter the IT-business liaison role, which was created in 2004. Since then, CIOs have been searching for the perfect IT liaison, according to 2010 research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB).

The IT liaison position was created to improve performance at the interface of technology and the business, and to teach partners how to reframe the way they view their business and its needs. However, many IT–business liaisons have as many as 20 additional responsibilities outlined in their job description, and the twin challenges of shaping demand and delivering projects stretches them too thin. As a result, according to CEB's research, these liaisons often spend only 37 percent of their time on activities with the highest impact on IT–business engagements.

CIOs also realized that they need business partners who can articulate strategy and link it to their IT demands. Consequently, just strengthening the IT liaison role is insufficient; CIOs must also encourage greater capability and accountability among business partners.

Based on interviews with more than 100 CIOs and their teams, along with 660 survey responses from business leaders, the CEB identified several factors that may make IT–business liaisons and business partners ineffective.

Liaison Challenges: Given that liaisons are juggling so many responsibilities, it’s not uncommon for liaisons to engage in trade-offs to complete a task or project component. In some cases, trade-offs create a chain reaction that turn liaisons into bottlenecks. They may become “order takers” rather than “order shapers.”

This typically happens when liaisons overemphasize the importance of making business partners happy, rather than providing strategic guidance based on project goals. Or, they may become too involved with a particular business unit, making them unable to deliver results that benefit the entire organization.

Business Partner Challenges: The best business strategies are informed by the possibilities of how technology can provide new sources of competitive advantage. Business leaders often fail to articulate business needs in a way that IT can actually do something with them.

In some cases, business partners can’t articulate their needs or don’t articulate them with enough lead time. Even when partners can express their needs, they may use language that forces IT into a corner by requesting systems or functionality, rather than business capabilities.

CIOs need to work both sides of the aisle to improve performance at the IT–business interface by:

1. Building a streamlined challenger liaison

Many attributes CIOs look for in IT–business liaisons are also found in other functions, such as sales. The IT–business relationship has many of the attributes of a complex sales environment, such as high-value, customized solutions, a variety of technical options, multiple stakeholders and the need to maintain long-term relationships.

The challenger profile (people who can teach, tailor their communication and create constructive tension) may be particularly effective in the liaison role. Unlike skill sets traditionally thought of as successful for this role, creating a liaison who is a challenger will ultimately create initiatives that map to the partner’s business goals.

2. Changing the liaison role’s operating model

In addition to turning the liaison into a challenger, utilizing a new operating structure will also prove beneficial. Research shows that liaisons who work in a Two-in-the-Box or Pure Play model can spend as much as 86 percent of their time on important tasks.

The Two-in-a-Box model pairs a liaison with business partner architects. Liaisons are able to focus on strategic issues, while the business architect is responsible for activities ranging from solution design to portfolio prioritization. Those without a business architect can use a Pure Play model, in which the liaison is focused solely on understanding and shaping demand and understanding the business needs. All other concerns are addressed by delivery managers.

3. Providing the necessary skills

Equip business partners with business architecture skills to articulate IT demand. Business architecture will provide the necessary tools for business partners to connect business strategy with IT projects by defining the capabilities needed for the project to succeed. The architecture will also allow the partners to govern the business unit’s investment decisions.

Communicating to business partners in small, achievable steps—with incremental benefits accrued along the way—will increase collaboration and clearly demonstrate to business partners the value of engaging in this effort.

Shvetank Shah is executive director of the Corporate Executive Board.

This article was originally published on 2011-10-04
Shvetank Shah is executive director of the Corporate Executive Board.
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