There has been a fashion in corporate IT to utilise IT Business Partnering as a way of getting ‘closer to the business’ – ensuring the IT team are working in alignment with the organisation as a whole. This is often a good model if the organisation has many diverse business areas with specific requirements and challenges. As the advance of consumer technologies removes barriers to entry and lowers investment costs for new entrants it could well be argued that in large organisations this is critical to future success, or indeed survival.
Ideally, the Business Partner works alongside the business areas, supporting and advising their strategic and operational decision-making. This should include providing strategic insights based on industry and technology trends and competitor information. In order to do this the BP has to wear a commercial hat as well as a technology one and in that guise should be ‘mini CIO’.
So why do these efforts often fall so far short of their aims? These are several behaviours that can signal a problem –
- The BP is seen to be ‘going native’, beating up their IT colleagues on behalf of their customer.
- The BP is used as an ‘order taker’, collecting requirements from the business area but not advising or shaping the demand.
- Frustrated by a lack of delivery from central IT, the BP builds a ‘shadow IT’ capability, circumventing the core team
- The BP becomes a project manager, delivering IT with or without the core IT function
Any of these are a sure sign that the process is failing, and this can be for a number of reasons. Often it is down to a lack of direction in prioritisation of projects, or a misunderstanding in the IT team of what their objective really is. All of these behaviours can be extremely costly if not managed effectively.
Business Partners must build relationships with their key operational stakeholders and the CIO in order to help the prioritisation process and also to manage expectations on all sides. It is a role that requires technical knowledge, strategic planning, market awareness and diplomacy. Above all it needs communication skills. I believe one of the key tasks any BP should complete when they begin this role is a strategic plan for the consumption of all parties. It should explain the role of the business unit, the commercial expectations placed upon it by the board (growth, costs, etc) and how it is going to achieve those things – and how IT is going to support those activities. It should give an overview of the market, what IT is used by competitors and the technological aspirations of the business. It should be written in language that is understandable to all stakeholders and of course it must be written in conjunction with those stakeholders.
By creating and maintaining this document, the rules of the game are established and the Business Partner has a framework on which to build. All too often this information is missing, leading to a sense of frustration in the core IT team who don’t understand the problem they are being asked to solve, and bewilderment in the business team who do not appreciate the complexity of the enterprise IT landscape.
The role of an IT Business Partner is not an easy one, but with careful planning it can be a successful and rewarding one, for the individual but also for the CIO and the business teams they are supporting.