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Outsource magazine: thought-leadership and outsourcing strategy | September 20, 2017

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“Mind the gap!” Business’ relationship with IT

“Mind the gap!” Business’ relationship with IT
William Hooper

Business users and IT (and other services) departments love to be rude about each other. Mutual incomprehension and worse frequently reign. What can be done to establish and maintain a healthy relationship and the high quality of service alignment?

The gap between Business and IT has long been deep. IT people too often have little comprehension of the link between the systems they support and the success of the business. Most business people have a cursory understanding of what lies behind their keyboards or network ports. Unfortunately, few customers, users or suppliers come with the new Extra-Sensory-Perception upgrade as standard.

In my work with both customers and suppliers, it is surprisingly common to find people to be utterly deluded. Talk to the IT people, and whilst the service has had its challenges due to the complex estate and rate of change, it is humming along pretty well. The dashboard is overwhelmingly green. Talk to the business, and IT is in a world of its own. They just do not get it. End-users are frustrated and change is just not getting implemented in either a timely or affordable way. There is nobody to whom they can turn for a sensible discussion about supporting innovation with technology. Some refer to this as the “watermelon” condition: all the reports of the service are green, but the feeling is that the core is red. Savvy CIOs know that this is a deeply dangerous position and that events can turn with the deadly speed of a descending guillotine. Careers are at stake. This is no idle paranoia; I have seen it at first hand.

Why does it matter?

The divide has long been a source of frustration for those that are charged with directing, prioritising and controlling investment. For those elements that directly touch front-line activities: the public website; email; desk-side services; the link between performance and outcome is obvious to the business. When you start to get more remote – data-centre infrastructure; WAN; security – it is less so. Unless there are people sufficiently aware and informed of both sides of the divide, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and risk will follow.

Many organisations have more than one business unit or market. These interests can create competing requirements and priorities that pull the service provider in different directions. Someone must resolve this. Customers now frequently reach into the organisation as e-commerce platforms designed to enhance value through integrated processes touch the core of the enterprise as well as calling on third parties. Someone must speak for them. At the same time, the potential presented by technological development to bring radically new value to customers is bewildering. Someone must scan the horizon of technical possibility for a high-value fit to customer need.

Many papers on Business Relationship Management (BRM) refer to the introduction of the role in response to a crisis of relevance for IT [Ref 1]. This chimes with my personal experience. I was once assigned as interim head of IT to a failing department. The titular head was delightful and totally ineffective. He had come up through the ranks from the service desk, acquiring a grand title without the breadth of business experience that normally goes with it. The business treated him with contempt and kept him in the basement (literally). The CEO had tried to ask him about how technology could contribute to driving the business forward, hearing only technobabble in response. Any CEO who asks for an IT strategy, and gets a shopping list in response will know the situation. This organisation lacked even the most basic service management disciplines, that was the priority of my assignment. It also lacked effective governance and business relationship. Some staff had grand ideas of what an IT service could and should be, e.g. a former senior military officer equated his high status with personal service and having a printer for his personal use. The group printer was less than ten feet from his desk, but that was not personal. The organisation’s policy of group printing had been taken for economic reasons, but without authoritative communication changes of policy can appear arbitrary.

This situation is nothing new; only the degree and speed have changed. In days of old when services were internally provided, it was common for some people to be cycled through assignments to IT. I used to be an accountant, links between finance and IT have long been strong. Many CFOs have CIOs or equivalent reporting to them. It was historically a good way to ensure that accounting systems received the attention that finance wanted. Secondment achieved many of the aims of BRM.

With the rise of ITIL, service management was given a standardised language and framework. ISO/IEC 20000 -1 has gone further in certifying performance to a standard. The trouble is that although “customer focus” runs deep in the quality movement on which ITIL and the standard were based, it is all too easy for the full implications to be lost. Too many service managers went native  within IT, looking to the provision of service to the exclusion of understanding what their users and customers are doing with it. A balance is needed between these.

A function and emphasis

Service management is required to look both to the technology / service deliverers and to the users in the business. The latest version of ITIL [Ref 2] introduces a process and role “Business Relationship Management” to acknowledge this. Implausibly, the emphasis is on the process rather than the role. Intellectual elegance and consistency rule over practicality and utility. The concept was simultaneously introduced in the Standard [Ref 3]. Whilst neither the standard nor the framework say anything about how a particular entity should arrange itself, this deliberately shines a light on the much-neglected Business Relationship Management area.

There is another school [Ref 4] that suggests that Business Relationship Management is a discipline in its own right. It draws its inspiration from Customer Relationship Management, and looks more to Banking than to IT. It incorporates the role of a service provider’s account manager (with concomitant objectives of maximising account profitability for the supplier) with the customer’s role of interfacing with the service provider as advocate of the business. I would resist the inclusion of account management here, as any CIO who outsources the internal role will find the individual’s loyalties sorely tested. It is clear who pays and appraises them; it is not the CIO.

In many organisations there are two factions within IT: projects and operations. Communication between the two is frequently seen as an undesirable impediment. The career paths, personalities, preoccupations and skills of the two differ significantly. Some frameworks make an unconvincing claim to straddle them, being on firmest ground when they specify what each needs to throw to (at) the other for the interface to be effective. BRM needs to straddle and balance the two effectively, thus assuring that the service delivers what the business needs today and will continue to do so in the future. This is not passive, but has significant elements of leadership and innovation. Ideas are not idle conjecture, they are the initiators of action to drive valuable change.

The role of Business Relationship Management

According to ISO/IEC 20000, the objective of BRM is “To establish and maintain a good relationship between the service provider and the customer based on understanding the customer and their business drivers.” This is a deliberately two-way facilitation. Both parties need to understand each other. The Standard states the duties to be:

  • Identify and document the stakeholders and customers of the services
  • Attend service reviews and discuss changes to scope and needs
  • Institute changes to the contract where necessary
  • Remain aware of changes to business needs and major changes to prepare for them
  • Operate a complaints process and escalation
  • Manage customer satisfaction

Other definitions incorporate:

  • Ensure high levels of customer and user satisfaction with the service and recognition of value delivered
  • The management of the service portfolio and the investment portfolio
  • The definition of requirements
  • Develop initiative business cases, prioritise them, optimise proposals for value
  • Hold suppliers to account for the delivery of business benefit
  • Inject a dose of reality into the business when extravagant service levels and functions are not supported by business value. Differentiate between what is wanted, needed, specified and will be paid for. Set and manage expectations and results to match
  • Manage the politics of relationships effectively for the benefit of all
  • The coordination of strategy development and management between business and IT
  • Resolve conflicting requirements between different parts of the business
  • Scan the technical horizon for developments that may valuably be brought to the business
  • Communications and mitigation planning during major incidents
  • Change management – the review and authorisation of changes for business impact
  • Release and deployment planning coordination between IT and the business

As ever, uninhibited by the need for brevity, ITIL gets a little carried away here. Some may see the pigs all lined up and ready to fly. Others, with grim resolve, are making it happen. Some have really been doing it for years.

Who can fulfil It?

In a small organisation, the BRM role is normally undertaken by the head of IM / IT Director / CIO. This is a senior role that requires business judgement and negotiation with business unit heads. This requires a personal gravitas and political savvy. As so often, recruit for attitude, train for skill. If the person has grown up as a technical architect they are likely to be very strong at the technical horizon scanning aspects. Do people glaze over and suddenly remember an urgent appointment elsewhere when they start to talk? If so, keep them in the architecture stream and draw on their advice to inform the role.

There is no requirement to find all the above attributes in one person. Whilst these may eventually grow over time, start from the thought that there is a core that must be present and that the remainder needs to be performed by someone – now who is best equipped to do it? The core is the role of customer advocate and supplier mediator.

I have heard one supplier at a conference proclaim that they perform the BRM role for a major customer. I pray that this is not so. That the supplier should have account managers charged with reaching out into the customer’s business, interpreting and conveying requirements and bringing technical solutions to them is absolutely as it should be. I have experience of a very large IT outsource contract where the customer leaned heavily on a highly competent, manipulative and self-interested prime supplier. The supplier furnished some very able senior consultants who worked hard to penetrate the customer’s business and due to their balkanised nature, knew far more comprehensively about this than all bar a tiny number of customer staff. They then used this knowledge in drafting proposals (as is right). The customer, lacking anyone with equivalent knowledge to make evaluation judgements, was in an extremely weak position when it came to assessing whether the proposal was in the best interests of customer, supplier or both. I would strongly advocate that the ability to make this judgement should be retained by the customer.

Some organisations will say this is the job of its Service Delivery Managers, others will appoint separate staff. Which is right for you is likely to be heavily influenced by the scale, requirements and skills of your operation. ITIL draws a distinction in the priority of focus between two process:

  • Service Level Management interrogates operational assessment to hold the supplier to account for daily performance to the SLA and contract
  • Business Relationship Management concentrates on the strategic and higher-level tactical question of whether the business is achieving the outcomes that it needs from programmes and services.

If both aspects can be performed by someone with a service background, that is fine. This is not a common or a junior person.

Getting there

As in any field, there are fads. BRM is definitely becoming a flavour-of-the-month. As with many, there is an important core of truth here that is ignored at your peril. As with all others, there is a huge range of ways in which the role can be implemented. Some are important, some are valuable, many are expensive. Optimal design requires insight, intelligence and judgement to apply the approach to the situation and need. When done well “The end result is higher levels of trust that the service provider is going to deliver value in future, and a greater willingness to work together as strategic partners.” [Ref 2]. That has to be better than the fall of Madame la Guillotine.

1.    Business Relationship Management: Standards, Best Practices, and Practical Implementations. Dr. Aleksandr Zhuk, with Aaron Barnes and Vaughn Merlyn. Support World. March / April 2013
2.    ITIL 2011 Service Strategy, The Stationery Office
3.    ISO/IEC 20000-1 2011. Part 1 is the core requirement. Part 5 is an exemplar implementation plan.
4.    Business Relationship Management Institute


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