Managing IT projects across a global dispersed organisation used to be far harder for Brian Jones. About two years ago, the global IS director and CIO of drinks giant Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine took what appeared to be a bold step: he appointed a quartet of senior business relationship managers (BRMs), backed up by a 10-strong team of support staff, to learn about the IT needs of end-users distributed across regional and divisional units and channel this information back to him.
To outsiders, it possibly seemed like an unnecessary layer had been added to a function designed, after all, to add automation, not more bureaucracy. But Jones says the move paid off.
One project last year is revealing. The BRMs were not convinced that Allied Domecq needed five different warehouse management systems to deal with the inventory of its many distilleries and wineries worldwide. Instead, they argued that users could get just as much out of the technology by consolidating the five systems into one. That user-led initiative quickly paid off. “We deployed this solution to all our businesses, and we’ve saved £1 million,” says Jones.
An even bigger success followed. Jones gave the four BRMs a key role in an ambitious programme to globalise the delivery of all IT services. “The transformation programme would have failed without the BRMs,” admits Jones. “The smaller distilleries and wineries would have been too daunted by it, and the larger ones would have felt disenfranchised from IT.” Instead, Jones was able to show the board a 20% reduction in IT costs and, just as importantly, the results of a user survey that found overwhelming satisfaction with the new system. “Eighty percent of our end-users say our service has actually got better,” he says.
Such experiences underline – yet again – how IT management acumen has become as important as any set of technical skills. Indeed, a recent survey by IT consultancy, the Meta Group, found that eight out of ten IT departments believe their ability to build a relationship with their lines of business is the major factor in determining their ultimate success or failure.
One reason for the growing importance of BRMs is that the traditional gap between the business and IT may have actually widened. Waves of consolidation and centralisation have, in many cases, made the IT function more distant from users – both literally and metaphorically. Some users have complained that outsourcing or centralising the IT function has made the service more remote. Others say their IT needs are often ignored by managers who may be remotely based or who sit out the organisation.
“IT is no longer just about automating business processes, it’s changing the business beyond all recognition,” says Chris Edwards, an IT professor at Cranfield School of Management. “It’s the need for a deep understanding of business change that’s making the role of the BRM more critical today.”
That puts the BRM’s star on an ascending trajectory. “I’m sure the future will see BRMs on management boards of the business units they work with – in fact, it’s happening already,” says Jones. “I very much see business relationship management as a great training ground for future CIOs because it has all the necessary components. The role is 100% more pivotal than it has been in the past because the recognition of its value is increasing.”
But to be effective, BRMs need to be championed by top management, and also to cultivate the support of all parties in the business – while serving two masters.
They should report to the head of the business department being supported, as well as to the IT director, says Susan Dallas, a Gartner analyst. “Successful relationship managers know that they really have two groups they must serve – the business unit and the IT organisation – no matter what the organisational chart says,” she says.
But establishing the BRM function is not easy. “You only get value for money from this role when you formalise it properly,” says Edwards. “Companies can be complacent. They say they have relationship managers but more often than not they have ex-IT people without sales or ‘soft’ skills, who come with a whole baggage of IT tools and analytical skills which I’m not sure are all that relevant.”
Ex-IT staff as BRMs are not always regarded as truly impartial when negotiations between the IT department and business units become strained. This only serves to reinforce the ‘us and them’ standoff that invariably existed before the BRM arrived.
Moreover, warns Mark Simmonds, managing director of IT services company Anix Group, CIOs make the worst BRMs. “IT directors who try to be business managers as well as mechanics end up being poor at both, and the business suffers,” he says.
So what skills does the ideal candidate have? Diplomacy, for one. Experts say that BRMs should appear impartial in any discussions between business managers and IT staff and they should have an abundance of soft skills such as the ability to develop rapport while listening to concerns and negotiating new projects.
Candidates tend to range from middle-ranking business managers to senior IT personnel. They are either present at the beginning of projects, assessing their applicability to the business and likelihood of success, or they are brought in later to act as conciliators and find solutions when projects run into difficulties.
The differing nature of the role goes some way towards explaining why so many job titles have emerged down the years purporting to fulfil this role. Aside from business relationship managers, the list includes account managers, investment managers, business analysts, hybrid managers, business unit IT co-ordinators, IT/business demand managers, corporate IT co-ordinators, business development managers and ‘bridgers’.
Salaries vary enormously, say recruitment consultants, from around £35,000 (EU45,000) for middle managers to £80,000 and above for more senior posts. But Peter Lewis of IT specialist recruitment firm Quad Personnel says that BRM salaries across the board are growing as companies learn about the value that such roles can deliver.
In any case, salaries could rise and still compare favourably with the cost of bringing in an external consultant. What is more, effective BRMs tend to be permanent positions that sustain an on-going dialogue between the relevant pasts of the business and IT. Having an in-house BRM also has the added advantage of building on staff skills and encouraging knowledge sharing and understanding across business divisions.
Caught in the middle
That, at least, is the theory. In practice, as some BRMs have found to their cost, being a ‘bridge’ between IT and the business can really mean being pulled in two different directions.
“I’m a fan of the role, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it myself,” says John Leaman, a former senior IT manager with a UK retailing company, where he was responsible for managing the relationship between business and IT for three years. “I felt caught between the business and IT. On one project I didn’t agree with what my own IT management had decided to do, but I had to go on the front line and defend it.”
Some of Leaman’s colleagues in the IT department felt uncomfortable working with a BRM. “You have to strongly represent the business in IT and they don’t like that because sometimes you have to tell them they’re doing a rotten job,” he says. “The worst part was that you don’t actually deliver anything. Your job is to help others do their jobs better, but that’s difficult when the business finds it hard to identify and articulate what makes them a success. The business tends not to have a systemised view of its doing, which makes it hard to match up IT solutions.”
But despite this experience, Leaman, now a managing consultant with IT adviser Compass, still calls on companies to appoint a BRM. “It’s an excellent idea. It shouldn’t be an additional cost at all, and should produce efficiencies,” he says.
All the same, experts say that IT directors should closely monitor the BRM, at least initially, and measure his or her performance with some pre-determined metric. Meta Group suggests that BRMs should also be assisted with what the analyst company terms customer-advocacy centres of excellence, representing, for example, operations (help desks, service-level managers and directors), architecture, application delivery, infrastructure planning and programme management.
BRMs also are more likely to succeed if organisations build IT systems incrementally, says Dr Mark Lycett of Brunel University’s information systems and computing department. This way each new piece can be sensitively introduced to the business by the BRM, and the whole system can evolve to meet end-users’ needs regardless of whether this matches the original specification or not.
“Accept that you’re not after this fixed point of a system, and use the BRM to ensure that the right chunks of the system get to the right people at the right time,” he says. “This is how IT can evolve in line with real business needs.”
One oft-quoted statistic is that half of all large IT projects are cancelled or fail to deliver. Some are technically over-ambitious, some are under-funded, but for the most part they fail because of a lack of understanding of the business requirement. Perhaps, with the wider use of BRMs, that number can become a little less threatening.
By Lindsay Nicolle