Bridging the gap

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.


Business Relationship Manager – The job spec

  • Create and maintain customer relationships
  • Coordinate the communication of the business department’s strategy and priorities
  • Communicate the IT response to the business department
  • Understand the business department’s work, as well as the technology possibilities and changes in the company’s environment
  • Understand corporate structures and individual roles and responsibilities
  • Be responsible for proposal development and project design, delivery and scope management
  • Lobby for resources and commitments.Source: Gartner/Omega Point Consulting 

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.

Rising stars

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.


In practice: MORI

UK market research company MORI employs a team of IT people whose job it is to understand end-users’ needs and make sure the technology delivers.

MORI also uses ‘bridgers’ in departments other than IT. For example, the finance department has seconded some of its account managers to assist other departments with management accounting. “Bridging isn’t just an IT phenomenon,” says the company’s IT director, Ben Booth. “But IT bridging is by far the most influential on business performance, because IT is integral to everything we do these days.”

MORI’s technologists work very closely with the company’s market researchers and the business executives running the projects, since so much of the research work is conducted using technology. “In the old days, we had problems with researchers not understanding what they were doing with the technology so we had to provide a lot of quick fixes,” says Booth. “This was very inefficient. But now the technologists and the researchers work very closely together and it’s very effective.”

MORI has enjoyed many business benefits from formalising its approach to business relationship management, says Booth. Staff across departments now have a far better understanding of the way others work and the problems they face. Their feedback is taken seriously, and acted upon. And the whole approach has had a very positive knock-on effect on IT project delivery.

“Projects are more closely targeted and relevant to the way the business operates, and they are also completed quickly and cheaply,” says Booth. “More importantly, we are meeting our key aims, which are to achieve greater flexibility and speed in response to customers’ needs.”

Booth believes that for the same reason that ‘bridgers’ should work seamlessly across departments, IT directors should be heavily involved in the decision-making process when it comes to setting business strategy. “In my view, the IT director should not stand apart from the business decision-making process at a strategic level, waiting for instructions from time to time. They should be linked into the process. This way they can understand the business issues, can contribute to decisions, and almost absorb by osmosis any required changes to the IT strategy as they arise.”

He adds: “This is the way to close the gap between IT and the business, and move one step closer towards a seamless 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.

Job search

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 practice: Centrica

At Centrica, everyone in the IT department is a BRM, says CIO Peter Brickley. “They all need to work in partnership with our business units and the people within them. This is how IT can add value to what the business units and the individuals within it are doing, and it means that the business relationship manager’s role is not reserved for any one person.”

IT is a key tool in delivering Centrica’s strategy of deepening relationships with customers of all its subsidiaries, including British Gas, the AA and One.Tel. A close relationship between IT and the different business units is pivotal. At Centrica, this approach applies from the top level downwards. The IT department aims to reflect the structure of the brand units, and is bound into them by its partnership role at all levels – from strategic thinking, through to the planning process, and execution on the ground.

For example, Brickley sits on Centrica’s executive committee, acting as an equal member of that business team – contributing to strategic decisions, and influencing how the group is run. Similarly, at British Gas, the IT director sits on the top executive team, and the head of business systems is a member of the main British Gas customer services team. This pattern is also followed at the AA and within Centrica’s other business units.

Brickley says that, by ensuring that IT staff operate as business partners, rather than internal suppliers, they are helping to create value for the business. This runs right through from cost avoidance, to service improvements, to management of group assets and ensuring people work together more productively.

“The ever increasing possibilities for the innovative use of technology enables us to improve our ability to better serve our customers. This means the information systems function’s aim of being an equal business partner within our business units is increasingly important in terms of giving Centrica a competitive edge,” he says.


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

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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