Break the bottleneck with this new IT/business engagement model

CIO teams need to interact more directly with business stakeholders -- from the digital sophisticates to the digital naïfs. Here are five elements of a new business engagement model.

For many years, CIOs have worked to establish IT as a strategic partner to the rest of the business. At the heart of these efforts were the IT relationship managers or liaisons -- a select group of individuals with "business skills," who served as conduits between business units, regions, corporate functions and IT. But digitization now demands even closer interactions between IT and the rest of the business -- and a new IT/business engagement model.

According to polls conducted by CEB in 2016, more than three-quarters of business objectives rely on technology, and rising business-led technology spending means corporate IT can no longer claim a monopoly on technology expertise. As a result, IT interacts with a wide variety of business stakeholders, each with their own degree of digital ability and ambition. Some business leaders still need IT to educate them on digitization benefits and risks, while others seek deep technical advice and help with integration.

CIOs need a business engagement model that's flexible enough to accommodate both of these extremes and everyone in between. But no single individual in IT can keep up with this diversity of stakeholders and demands. In fact, there is growing evidence that dedicated business relationship managers can be counter-productive. CEB's surveys of business leaders find that 78% want unmediated access to broader and deeper technical expertise within IT, including the ability to work directly with enterprise architects and delivery teams. Many of these leaders see IT relationship managers as bottlenecks, not aides.

Five building blocks of new business engagement model

To succeed in an era of broad-based digitization, IT must provide different types of support in different contexts, and this must happen quickly and without creating additional complexity. There are five activities that business leaders -- regardless of digital ambition and ability-- rely on IT to provide.

  1. Evangelizing. IT teams have a deep understanding of company goals and the opportunities and limitations presented by the current technology environment. As such, they have an advantage over external consultants, digital agencies, vendors and other third parties. IT can keep business leaders abreast of emerging digital trends and risks, and educate them on opportunities to create value from technology. For example, enterprise architects can participate in company-level strategy development, or the CIO can organize road trips for business leaders to learn from start-ups, vendors and peers.
  2. Consulting. To be faster and better able to link business and technology outcomes, business leaders want greater ownership of many of the tasks that traditionally have resided in IT. IT can take advantage of this shift by offering advice and frameworks to enable successful business leadership of technology investments. For example, applications leaders can provide counsel on how to negotiate effectively with a technology vendor, and the PMO can offer self-service frameworks and tools for project management.
  3. Brokering. IT can exploit its unique view across the enterprise to provide internal and external connections needed for business leadership of technology investments. For example, an IT service manager could help business leaders in different regions who are trying to develop the same digital capability connect to pool their efforts, or an enterprise architecture team could bring emerging vendors into the company to highlight their technologies.
  4. Coaching. On the principle that it's better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish, IT can help employees build the skills needed to make full use of the enterprise's technology and information. For example, a Big Data team could coach analytics tool users to better understand the company data resources available to them, or an IT service manager responsible for collaboration tools could offer users checklists on effective collaborative behaviors.
  5. Delivering. While the other four activities are growing in importance, IT's traditional role in delivering technology functionality doesn't go away. In fact, in areas where companies seek competitive advantage, IT's ability to build, customize or integrate new technology capabilities rather than rely on off-the-shelf solutions is very valuable.

All hands on deck, checks and balances

These five activities are too much for any one individual or team to take on, and giving each to a different owner doesn't scale, so business engagement has to become a part of everyone's job and skill set. This flexible, all-hands-on-deck approach to engagement requires an adaptive mindset and skills, as IT employees must be able to handle ambiguity and work without a clear end-state. Many IT employees currently lack this mindset, so it is important that CIOs develop a strategy to upgrade the workforce as part of the transition.

Moving away from a single point of contact who provides these activities as needed should make business leaders' interactions with IT easier and more effective. But without appropriate checks and balances, the outcome of this new business engagement model can result in duplication and frustration, which doesn't build a closer working relationship. A common way to make it easier for business partners to reach the support they need is to define IT's offerings as a series of services or product lines. Each service then supports several or all of the activities in a given domain.

IT leaders can play a key role in the enterprise's digital transformation. But to do so successfully, they must constantly adapt their approach to collaborating with the rest of the business and provide the right mix expertise based on the digital ability and ambitions of their business partners.

About the author:

Andrew Horne is an IT practice leader at CEB, a best practice insight and technology company. Since joining CEB in 1999, he has authored studies on topics, including IT strategy development, performance and value measurement, business intelligence and big data, IT staff and leadership development and IT innovation.

Next Steps

Recent columns by Andrew Horne:

Achieve digital transformation: CEB Summit takeaways

CIOs play pivotal role in digital transformation

enterprise digitization in six steps 

Dig Deeper on Digital transformation

Cloud Computing
Mobile Computing
Data Center
and ESG