The Go-Betweens

Ten tips for connecting information technology with business.

by Minda Zetlin, February 2009

Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, thought he was attending a meeting with business leaders at a regional bank to explain the best practices of the IT department. Instead, he found himself listening to complaints that IT never met its commitments—with specific examples as proof.

“They would start up with both business and IT involved in planning, but the CFO would take each organization off in a room and they would hammer out the final specifics of that organization’s budget,” he says.The two organizations would not reconcile their budgets before they started spending. By then, it was too late for IT to influence the process or review project requirements, and the business side invariably wound up with some unmet expectations. “It could have been handled much more cleanly if someone from IT had been involved all the way through,” Cameron says.

It’s a familiar story that’s led many IT departments to handle relations with business departments on an ongoing basis, rather than project by project. In fact, Forrester found that 37 percent of CIOs deploy a group with the sole function of managing IT’s relationship with its business counterparts.

Reflecting the nuances of the IT/business relationship, there are many names for these go-between teams. Many companies use “program management” or “portfolio management” to indicate oversight of a collection of IT projects (while “project management” oversees one project at a time). Others call it “relationship management,” focusing on the ongoing interchange between IT and business rather than on projects. For especially evolved companies, Forrester favors “demand management,” a more global view based on understanding business needs and inclusive of technology in use, including outsourced solutions.

Ten Tips: Structuring Your Go-Between Strategy

Whatever you call it, creating a go-between team really can improve IT/business alignment. Here are some tips from IT leaders who’ve been there and IT experts who’ve seen it done right—and wrong.

 

1. Create strategic discussions between business and IT. A successful joint operation between IT and the lines of business requires the liaison team to avoid getting bogged down in operational or organizational details. The relationship should be a strategic one. Andrew Horne, senior research director for the CIO Executive Board, a division of the Corporate Executive Board, says recent research supports this point. “We found liaisons sometimes mistakenly think they need as much time as possible with their business partners. Actually, using the time they have to create high-level discussions is what drives a successful relationship.”

2. Include specialists from all relevant areas. At one large company, Adam Nelson, director of management and IT consulting at Keane, assembled go-between teams with a liaison leader, a business analyst, a systems architect, a developer, and a software tester. Each team was assigned to a different business unit. While it may sound like a lot of personnel to fulfill the go-between function, it turned out to be highly efficient, he says.

In a typical situation, a project question from the business side is addressed by a single liaison with the IT project manager—and the project manager contacts the project team to get an answer. What develops is a confusing game of telephone, especially if a technical issue lies outside the liaison’s expertise.

In Nelson’s model, a systems architect on the liaison team can answer an architecture question without the game of telephone. And, if needed, that architect can go directly to the architect on the project team and get an informed answer. “Although you have more people on the team, you are breaking down silos,” Nelson says.

Also, it’s important to include people from the business units on the go-between team—which might be easier than you think. “Most IT people are surprised at how many business employees want to learn more about IT and what happens behind the curtain,” says Jerry Luftman, distinguished professor at Stevens Institute of Technology’s Howe School of Technology Management, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and executive vice president of the Society for Information Management.

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