The Business-IT Relationship – Remember where the real enemy is…

Janus was the Roman god of doorways, gates, transitions, beginnings and endings; as such, he was commonly depicted as having two faces, one looking in each direction.

How apt.  Managing the Business-IT relationship has a similar dynamic: it’s important to see issues from both perspectives in order to determine the right way forward.  Otherwise the many issues that can arise in this area can become endemic – such as:

  • The business becoming frustrated with the IT service – too slow, too expensive, too inflexible – especially, around new sources of innovation – digital etc.
  • IT becoming frustrated that the business cannot provide the right inputs to IT services – requirements, resources, acceptance etc.
  • A feeling that there is too much focus on new and shiny applications – and not enough time and governance aimed at realising full value from the existing legacy estate
  • Blurred accountabilities – business making technology decisions, IT making business calls.

A blame culture all too often sets in and becomes deep-rooted, resulting in lots of “heat and light” and making this one of the most challenging operational handoffs to get right.  Why is this?

Well, there is no denying that the business-IT relationship is important.  How an organisation uses and governs technology is an increasingly critical source of differentiation in the market-place.  Equally, the IT function is often one of the most significant components of the operational cost base and therefore subject to constant scrutiny to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.

Less clear perhaps is the value of IT to the business; this is important to allow you to manage the business-IT relationship to best effect, to deliver the right outcomes for the wider organisation.  [It’s amazing how often the business and IT functions can have entirely different answers to this seemingly obvious question!]

These outcomes are typically driven by the business strategy (e.g. a digital business will require rapid, flexible IT development; a low cost business will require cheap, predictable delivery) but may also vary over time in line with business performance – e.g. a periodic focus on cost.

Once you are clear on the outcomes, the next-step is to reflect these in the operational priorities of the business-IT function. There are several aspects to consider, each requiring a balanced approach across a number of focus areas.

For example:

  • Change vs. run
  • Efficiency vs. effectiveness
  • Cost vs. transparency
  • Innovation vs. delivery
  • Fixing problems vs. preventing them

Thinking through each of these considerations helps the leaders of the business-IT relationship function to devote their time to the optimum mix of activities.

This is a key point: being busy (and in lots of meetings) is not the same as adding value!

In terms of configuring the business-IT relationship function, it is just as much an art as a science.

First the science…

Based on the stated outcomes, a decision needs to be made as to the scope of the function.  Typically, business-IT relationship functions have a fairly standard functional footprint – the balance to be agreed is therefore the degree to which the accountability for each aspect needs to reside within the relationship management function itself:

  • Strategy and architecture
  • Annual management planning and target setting
  • Commercial and financial oversight and governance
  • Portfolio management and demand planning
  • Service management – cost vs. volume vs. quality
  • On-boarding of change – governance and commitment
  • Delivery accountability and oversight
  • Solution definition and agreement
  • Capability development – e.g. programme managers, business analysts
  • Escalations

Once the scope and accountability of the function has been agreed the target operating model can be tailored to deliver an aligned effective service.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here.

A key element of the operating model is the stated accountabilities and decision rights around change; you need to be clear over who has the final say over key points of design, planning, approach etc.  As a general rule the accountabilities usually play out as follows:

  • The business are accountable for the “why” (why a change is required) and the “business what” (the business requirement)
  • IT are accountable for the “technology what” (the IT requirement) and the “how” (how a change is best delivered: the solution, method and plan).

One last thing to remember in all of this is that, logically, there are two areas to get right: how the business faces off to IT and how IT faces off to the business.  The agreed operating model needs to bridge the two, keeping both areas aligned around a common set of outcomes and priorities – and removing any latent inefficiencies and functional duplication.  In some industries (financial services being one) the functions can be largely consolidated: the argument being that the vast majority of change goes through IT anyway.

Now the art….

Having the world’s best operating model doesn’t ensure success.

A key additional consideration is the business-IT leadership roles themselves – having the right people in situ is key to making the function productive.

There are some general abilities required here:

  • To consider opportunities and issues from the others perspective (business vs. IT)
  • To build trust-based relationships
  • To act as an honest-broker – able to say ‘No’ to both business and IT leaders
  • To have the courage to call things out – and the tenacity to follow things through
  • To have the experience to be credible and authentic, influencing and guiding stakeholders
  • To naturally collaborate – to encourage, enable and coach
  • To manage their time ruthlessly, focusing on the most important and urgent activities.

In essence, the leaders of the relationship management functions need to be the personal embodiment of everything the business wants to achieve through the use of IT.  As such, they will typically be some of your most capable leaders, sourced from both the business and IT functions and potential senior leaders of the future.  They also need to be able to work as a team – with their business/IT counterpart – and there is much to be gained by matching personality types to avoid unnecessary conflict and disruption!

And finally, never forget that the effective and efficient use of IT is a shared opportunity, a shared problem and a shared responsibility.

The real enemy is on the outside – your competitors in the market-place.

POSTED BY: David Knappett - Consulting Director


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