BRM: Learning from the past (time for a new table)

I was recently sent a copy of a paper that was titled: “The IT Business Partnership: Exploring a Troubled Relationship”. You can find a copy here if you would like to read it. With some experience of this troubled relationship, an interest in making it better, and having written a series of posts responding to questions raised by BRM’s in an open forum it was interesting to have another perspective.

Having hunted around to find the source of the paper I was surprised that it was something that had originally been published for a conference in 2002. The mind immediately jumps to things going on at that time, the technology available and working experiences.

Reflecting back, I’m surprised that there was such perceived disconnection between what the authors of the paper call “those who make the IT work” and “those who use IT to do their work”.

My own experience in 2002 was limited but IT was primarily focused on providing tools (software, hardware, connectivity) to the organisation. It was during this period I would have been completing my undergraduate degree and there is no stand-out memory of this troubled relationship being covered!

Here we are in 2020 and the technology have changed significantly but if anything, the relationship between the IT professional and the Business professional has often got worse, not better. Perhaps the relationship isn’t as important as we like to make out. Perhaps we’ve been successful anyway. Perhaps the lost value just can’t be articulated so it’s not thought about. The eternal optimist in me believes that just because we’re in this state doesn’t mean we don’t search for things to be better in the future.

Many of the observations in the paper were nothing new. There is the reinforcement of some existing beliefs and key points for example:

For modern organisations to fully exploit information technology and remain successful, closer links need to be forged between business and IT professionals (Broadbent et al. 1993)

And:

There is still the dilemma of mismatched expectations between business and IT (Broadbent 1996)

(Yes, those are references to material published whilst I was still at school! The first one from before I had a computer at home!)

I wouldn’t be writing this post if I, or anyone else, had a magic formula for fixing this. If it hasn’t been sorted in the last 20 years then there is presumably something more fundamental that needs to be dealt with.

But, that doesn’t mean we don’t try.

I’m a firm believer in what I call “lighting little fires” which can bring about change.

With that in mind then there are some things to think about and as you develop your career – as a BRM or one of the many other professions – you may want to do differently to those who have come before.

Mindset

Most organisations have two types of core activity. Things which are seen as the primary purpose of the organisation and things which are about the facilitation and enablement of those things.

One way to think about this is as a gardener needs to have both a vine and a trellis. The vine produces the fruit which is the purpose of the work. The trellis needs to be maintained to ensure the vine doesn’t outgrow it, fall over or become damaged, and provides the support needed for future growth.

Having the mindset that acknowledges that both the trellis and the vine are important is beneficial in thinking about the organisation structure. You can’t throw all your resources just at the vine, nor at the trellis. You need the two together to get the best fruit possible. This also requires the mindset shift away from “them vs. us” and recognition that we succeed together.

Expectations

One of the most revealing comments I had during a project to implement a new system when working in one of the police forces came from a senior police officer. Partway through the project, he stated: “I expected the supplier to send us a CD, we’d click next, next, next and the software would be installed.”

His own experience of technology (at home) shaped his expectations of what would happen in the workplace. The endless discussions we’d had about requirements, the configuration of drop-drown options, interfaces and security controls were the IT professionals bread-and-butter but not expected.

There needs to be a conversation between the IT and Business Professionals not just about what each can do, but also how they could work together. Too often the IT professionals remain frustrated because they have great ideas but no-one in “the business” wants to involve them. I have a suspicion this is often because they haven’t offered in a way that is understandable or easy to say “yes” to.

Value Difference

The authors of the paper see that the two types of professional have differences not just in expectations but also working practices and approaches. Rather than trying to get everyone behaving in the same way, value the difference. Management styles, resource planning, budgets, and delivery may be different for good reason. Embrace the difference and use the diversity to be stronger together, rather than aspiring to achieve a single model.

Conclusion

The evidence suggests that the relationship between those who use IT and those who provide IT won’t be fixed overnight. The Business Relationship Manager has a key role to play in being one of the few parties who can position themselves in both camps.

The BRM should seek to build bridges not build empires.

Success isn’t getting one side to sit at the other table.

Success is building a new table together and sitting there as one combined team who understands the value of both the trellis and the vine.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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