The BRM: Friend or Foe for the IT Department?

Question: How do you propose overcoming a position where BRMs enjoy senior and strategic engagement with the business but does not have the same relationships within IT.

The BRM role is always in danger of having to serve two rulers and at times will everyone’s best friend, or feel like they are disliked by both sides. Before looking at this specific question it is worth revisiting the place of the BRM role in the organisation as a whole.

Borrowing from the BRM Institute then the role is considered to sit between two domains – the provider domain (which is the supplier of services, capabilities and solutions – traditionally the IT Department) and the business partner (the consuming part of the organisation – the line of business in many cases). The sponsor (the one who pays the salary!) is nearly always going to be the IT Department/CIO and so there is an expectation that the BRM should have a strong allegiance to the one who keeps them fed and watered. However, it isn’t that straightforward, as the BRM role has often been created to sit in the void between these two domains and needs to have a foot in both camps.

One of the risks, especially for the CIO, and as a leader of a BRM team, is ensuring that the BRM doesn’t “go rogue” and become so embedded with the business partner they’re building relationships with, that they’re no longer able to be effective for you. Interestingly, and perhaps perplexingly, this is only a risk because (and it may just be my experience) in many organisations we’ve continually failed to come together as a collective group that spans the business units (artificially created by cost centres and budgets) who know they need to work together but would really rather remain in sole control of their destiny.

You know you have this barrier in your organisation when the language is along the line of IT and “the business” as if there is this other thing called “the business” that everyone is dealing with.

Before you think that it is only IT who fall into this trap, I was surprised to see that the HR department did exactly the same thing (even calling the IT department “the business”) and so it is a problem that runs deep.

I’ve just finished reading Pig Wrestling: The Brilliantly Simple Way to Solve Any Problem… and Create the Change You Need which is one of those easy to read books that through the storytelling sets out an approach. (A similar read is The Phoenix Project and would also recommend adding that your reading list). Pig Wrestling is the scenario that is behind this question and we need to take great care to ensure that we’re actually working on the thing that needs to be sorted, and not a manifestation of it.

If you, as the BRM, have a good relationship with your business partner domain but yet are struggling to establish that same relationship within IT (assuming that is the provider domain) then I think it is time to take a step back and consider not just what this feels like and the challenges you perceive it is creating but why that actually matters.

Having made a similar complaint at a previous point in my career someone made the insightful challenge – you need to ask yourself why you’re not being asked to the party.

Ultimately, this isn’t a question with an answer and what you do in this situation will need to be the result of your own exploration and understanding the context of your organisation.

Here are some suggested things to think about:

Know your sponsor: The sponsor isn’t the person who has approved it, it isn’t even the person who pays your salary (though it may be), they are the person who is vocal about the importance of the role, speaks up to defend you, makes sure that you are being invited to the right conversations and who if needed would be prepared to pay your wage from their budget because they know it is important. If you haven’t got this then you’re always going to struggle because the absence of the BRM role isn’t directly felt in the day-to-day transactions of the business. If you can establish the sponsor then you can start to understand what they believe the purpose of the role is, and if having strong relationships with the IT department is needed.

Be visible, be useful and help with important things: Whatever approach you’ve taken to building good relationships with the business partner domain is your starting point for doing the same with the provider domain/IT department. If you’re seen as the person who is always off enjoying business meetings, doing your “outside-in” thinking and never around when it is time to roll-up-your-sleeves and get stuff fixed in the IT department then you’re creating a barrier that is of your own doing. I’ll always remember one member of the team realising the importance of offering to lend a hand on the Service Desk at a particularly challenging time. They lived off the goodwill they earned for a long time afterwards.

Be objective, deal with facts and leave emotional responses to others: You are unlikely to be able to escape having to deliver messages from both sides that requests have changed, priorities are different, things haven’t been done and promises have been broken. There will be plenty of other people who are looking to play the blame-game in these situations and protect their reputation that as a BRM you can make a conscious decision to do something different. One of the key competencies, as covered in many other posts I’ve written, is that of being able to help others make sense of a situation, to see the options available to them and to facilitate finding a solution.

If you’re able to be a vocal defender of your business partner (and their reasonable and unreasonable requests!) whilst also being able to set out what the IT department is actually able to do then from the neutral position you’ll be able to be seen as the friend to both sides.

In summarising I’ll come back to the Pig Wrestling as I’ve seen BRMs take a variety of responses and sit at both ends of the spectrum (best friend with IT or of the business) and they are successful in different ways. What doesn’t happen however is that the whole organisation gets the right things being talked about or all its resources (teams, people, finances) working together to achieve the best outcome because whilst we’re talking in an “us vs. them” mindset we’re not really addressing the real issue.

To avoid leaving it as an unanswered and hanging question, I believe the best place to start looking for a better way, is in thinking about how you shift from a budget-project world to one where you’re funding diverse collaborative teams who are delivering products. That’s the biggest contributor to breaking the silos and establishing a new normal. It would be great to hear from anyone who has seen this work for them!

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

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