Opinion by Al Kuebler

Putting the 'B' in BRM

How can you have a business relationship management program that doesn't include input from the business units?

Opinion by Al Kuebler

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The challenge: Justify to the senior management committee the expense of business relationship management (BRM) within the IT function.

Now, there are many ways to do that. All the tools for assessing value can be drawn upon. There's the balanced scorecard, ROI, maturity models (with key performance indicators) and assessments against them, surveys, IT investment ratios, IT productivity over time. All very plausible, given the right circumstances.

But as CIO, I knew that I had to do more than show that BRM made compelling sense from a stockholder perspective. I also had to show how its success would be measured over time.

My team and I realized that we had to be ready to answer two questions:

1. What strategic corporate value was there in spending money to create a non-technical unit within IT that would be filled with people who were, all at once, IT marketers, two-way communicators, the voice of the customer, involved business-unit partners, trusted account managers, and advocates for shared IT services?

2. How would we know if this new IT unit's activity was successful?

Question No. 1

The best argument for the first question was that BRM would do much more than increase business-unit demand for IT services; it would also improve both business and strategic performance. We could back this up by noting that:

* Unlike nearly every other corporate expense, IT assets do more at less cost every year.

* Using IT assets effectively avoids cost, improves service and increases revenue.

* The corporation has invested significantly in IT assets, and increasing the use of those assets would improve their productivity and lower IT unit costs for the business units.

* If it is true that increasing the demand for using IT assets is beneficial, then increasing that demand should not be left to chance; however, the IT function was purpose-built around a technical skill base to supply IT services, not to create demand for those services. That requires a completely different skill set.

* Business units need to have a clear understanding of the business value of IT and be actively involved with the IT function in finding new ways to use it to improve productivity and growth.

* The primary reasons for establishing a business-oriented BRM function are to help business units understand the IT value proposition; make sure the IT function is directly responsive to business-unit needs; help business units introduce beneficial change; succeed in improving their business and strategic performance; provide a framework for linked-destiny cooperation, collaboration, joint achievement and recognition; and generate demand for effective IT services.

* It is time for the IT function to move beyond being a reactive cost center to become a proactive value adder to the business units it serves.

Question No. 2

How to know whether the BRM function was successful was a harder question to answer. It would take time for business units to go through the stages of awareness, trial, adaptation and full acceptance of the BRM team as a true partner in helping them achieve their goals. Until we reached that final stage, measuring success wouldn't really be possible. In the end, we decided that the following would be indicators of success:

* The more knowledgeable, involved, trusted and proactive a BRM function is, the more successful BRM is.

* The more BRM helps IT's clients improve their business and strategic performance, the more successful BRM is.

* The more demand increases for the strategic use of IT assets, the more successful BRM is.

One More Question

We had done our homework well enough to get the funding we wanted from the senior management committee to establish the BRM role if we could answer just one more question: "What are the risks associated with implementing this BRM role in corporate IT, and how would we deal with each of those risks?"

That wasn't the SMC telling us to go back to the drawing board. In fact, it was exactly the right question to ensure eventual success. The SMC was letting us know that they understood and supported our proposal and wanted it to succeed. To that end, my team and the committee would be jointly reviewing how we were going to address the implementation challenges ahead.

Executive Sponsorship Is Not Enough

Energized by the SMC's request, my team took our initial BRM implementation plan and added much more detail. We dug deep and found several previously uncontemplated situations we might run into, and we described how we would address each of them. Far more importantly, it soon became blindingly clear that we hadn't fully addressed what was needed to obtain long-lasting buy-in from our business-unit clients (soon to be partners, we hoped), nor had we budgeted enough time to properly secure it.

This was a problem, we realized; certainly it was essential to have the blessing of the SMC and executive sponsorship for the BRM initiative, but without buy-in from the business units, it would never amount to a thing. We would have to slow things down, but clearly we had a compelling reason to do so. We had to carefully identify and plan for what it would take to obtain from the business units their understanding, support, involvement and joint accountability (ownership) of the BRM program. This was a bump in our road, but we felt no inclination to curse it. To the contrary, we were very thankful for the SMC's directive to consider our risks carefully. Without that guidance, we might have barreled ahead without properly addressing what was probably our most important critical success factor.

People Support Best What They Help Build

We knew now that we had to involve and pull the business units into our implementation plan. We had to explain the BRM capability and ensure all had a common understanding of its future benefits as compared to our current state. We had to show how it would affect interactions between the business units and IT. We had to demonstrate its business value. Each business unit would be invited to join us in sessions to work on the implementation plan, walk through those plans as they were developed, and provide feedback as we progressed. We also added a formal milestone in the schedule where each business unit would be allowed to approve or suggest changes to the BRM mission (outlined in the sidebar).

After reviewing everything we could think of several times, we scheduled our next SMC session.

What Happened?

The SMC was pleased. They helpfully pointed out some things in our plan that could use some attention, and they offered their help if needed, but our BRM implementation was on its way. One SMC member termed the additional time we'd added for our business-unit collaboration sessions as "essential missionary work."

And so it proved. The time we'd added for involving, sharing, understanding and addressing questions from the business units and exchanging concerns with them enabled us to adjust things (even in small ways) so that we were more in harmony with each business unit's particular IT and business situations.

Shortly, business-unit staffers were applying for positions within the BRM team. That was when we knew that accountability for the success of the BRM program was becoming shared with our new business partners.

And it was a pleasant surprise to find how all this led to ever more cooperation between the IT function and the business units, as we began to work as a unified team to address business challenges together. The business units got comfortable with using the IT assets and resources available to them and, just as important, the IT folks started to want to prove the value of their function in this new role.

NB: To learn more about the benefits of the BRM capability, the best places to start include: ITIL Service Management Strategy, 2011 Version (search using this term) and especially the Business Relationship Management Institute.

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way, from which this article was adapted. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

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