Much has been written about “Business-IT Alignment” over the years.  Alignment can refer to Strategy – the degree to which IT strategy and business strategy are aligned.  (This, of course, is both ‘old news’ and yet often not the case in practice.  And there’s one school of thought that says there’s no such thing as IT strategy – it’s only business strategy with IT implications.)

Alignment can also refer to Structure – IT capabilities are structured to align with business structures and needs.  But there’s a crucial ‘third leg’ to the business-IT alignment stool, and that is the alignment of relationships that sit between business units and IT capabilities.

The Crucial Relationship Manager Role

Many IT organizations have created a role that bridges the business and IT.  Rarely actually called “Relationship Managers”, this role represents IT to the business and the business to IT. I’ve posted on this role before – see, for example The IT Relationship Manager’s Role in Expanding Business-IT Capability,  and From Supply-Constrained to Value-Constrained IT Business Model, and IT Maturity and the Role of the Relationship Management.  Sometimes called an IT Account Manager, or Business-IT Director, or some-such, the role is primarily responsible for ‘demand shaping‘ – stimulating an appetite for high value demand, and suppressing appetites for low value demand.  Sometimes, people in this Relationship Manager Role are effectively mini-CIO’s or Business Unit CIO’s – leveraging shared IT infrastructure (and often leveraging common applications and enterprise systems) but taking care of business unit-specific IT needs.

Relationship Alignment

There are at least three dimensions along which Relationship Managers can align with their business partners.  The first two dimensions are pretty obvious and generally handled well, but the third dimension is trickier and often not well addressed.  The dimensions are:

  1. Domain Expertise – the Relationship Manager (or whatever title this role operates under) needs to really understand the business domain for which they are responsible.  Be it marketing, supply chain, human resources, and so on, they need to have deep domain knowledge in order to bring real value to their business partners and have the credibility to have impact.
  2. Geography – as the real estate cliché goes, ‘location, location, location!’ so goes Relationship Management.  At its best, the Relationship Manager should be co-located with the senior managers of the business unit with which they are aligned.  At the very least, they need easy access.  The occasional ‘fly in’ to meet with their business partners typically doesn’t do it in terms of creating a productive business-IT partnership.
  3. Maturity – this is the tricky dimension, and one that is typically not well addressed.  Skilled Relationship Managers are a rare resource.  You want your most effective and creative Relationship Managers aligned with those business units and executives with the highest demand maturity – i.e., with the best  capacity to recognize and leverage high value IT-enabled opportunities.  Innovative, ‘change agent’ types of Relationship Managers will quickly become frustrated facing off against executives who are technologically in the dark ages, or who cherish the status quo.  Similarly, progressive, innovative business leaders will become quickly frustrated working with a Relationship Manager who lacks drive, a sense of urgency, the creativity to generate valuable ideas about IT possibilities, and the wherewithal to bring them to fruition.

How Healthy Are Your Business-IT Relationships?

Clearly, the CIO is in many ways the ‘über-Relationship Manager’, setting the tone for demand shaping and the strategic context for IT, and typically ‘owning’ the business-IT relationships with the most senior executive team.  But no CIO has the bandwidth or domain expertise to handle all the relationships at all the management levels needed to surface and steer the best opportunities to create business value from IT.  So, how healthy and productive are your key relationships between business and IT? Do you even know what would be considered ‘key relationships’?  How would you know the degree to which they are fully delivering value against their potential?

Let me know your thoughts and experiences around Relationship Management effectiveness.

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