work-silos

 

IT Organizations are complex organisms that have to deal with rapidly changing, complicated subjects. Such environments are fascinating places for organizational archaeologists and anthropologists to study, revealing layer upon layer of legacy architectures, organizing structures, artifacts and sub-cultures. While the technologies we manage change quickly, the methods and structures we use to manage them take time to change—often evolving more slowly than their end users wish to adopt them. So the change is often messy, as human factors such as resistance, status, organizational power and personal competencies distort organizational change plans and intentions.

BRMs: The Canary in the Mine?

In my work with BRMI, I hear about the many challenges Business Relationship Managers (BRMs) face in their work, and these challenges sometimes have to do with organizational silos. Such silos often materialized in the distant past in response to changes in the work of the IT organization, and have hardened over time as a way to reinforce their relevance and protect themselves from intruders. Examples of such silos are many and varied, and include:

  • • Enterprise Architects
  • • Project and Program Management Offices
  • • Business Intelligence specialists
  • • Security specialists

 

In fact, one of the reasons that the BRM role has emerged with a vengeance over the last few years is the creeping specialization within the enterprise IT domain. It can be said that BRMs act as business-facing generalists who help business executives and managers make sense of IT and help the IT organization make sense of the businesses it supports.

So what happens when the specialists are so entrenched in their own empires that they have trouble engaging with the generalists (and with the other specialist groups)? As an illustration, here’s a typical question that surfaced recently in the BRMI Online Campus (this is the Wiki that houses the BRM Interactive Body of Knowledge and various Communities of Interest and discussion forums):

“Our BRM group is gaining traction with our business partners and having a real, positive impact. But our relationships with some key stakeholders in the IT organization are not so readily forged. Our Enterprise Architecture group, in particular, does not want to engage with us. Looking for suggestions to address this dysfunctionality.”

The Silo Trap

Specialization tends to lead to silos, and silos can be remarkably effective at defending their turf. Probably one of the most important breakthroughs in organizational design since Frederick W. Taylor’s book,  “Principles of Scientific Management“, was the emergence of cross-functional teams, often bringing together specialists such as design engineers, manufacturing engineers, marketing specialists and so on. With this cross-discipline representation, linear, sequential processes become more parallel and iterative, shortening product development lead times and improving product quality. The same benefits of cross functional teaming can be applied to the IT organization. It just requires breaking through the silos.

The Trap of Siloed Transformation

Compounding the problem of organizational silos, and indicative of the resilience of the silo mentality, many IT organizations engage in some form of “transformation” every few years (or when IT leadership changes). The problem is, the transformation initiatives are often framed from within the silos. The marching orders given to each member of the IT leadership team often goes something like, “Go forth and transform your organization!” And so the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic are rearranged, and everyone gets back to business as usual, the silos as entrenched as ever.

Breaching Silos from the Outside

To really soften the silo walls requires a more holistic perspective—one that raises the question, “What are we trying to do for our business partners?” They don’t care about Enterprise Architecture or Program Management, or whatever. They are trying to drive business results—taking out costs, innovating a product or process, getting closer to their consumers, etc. And this is where the BRM can be a significant force—bringing that holistic, external perspective, and orchestrating the specialist groups to work together to help solve the business problems.

Business Relationship Management with Teeth

But, as I’ve posted recently (see Business Relationship Management is a Contact Sport, and Business Relationship Management with Boxing Gloves) successful BRMs operate with just the kind of hard edge needed to breach the silos. For a BRM to be a true change agent takes courage, leadership air cover, and a clear-minded vision of a better future. And as Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

 

 

Graphic courtesy of Harold Jarche adapting to perpetual beta