Fostering strong engagement with business partners continues to be a challenge for many IT leaders. For periods of time, such as when, a major project is underway or when a strategy is being developed, relationships with business partners can improve, but in matter of months it drops again. CIOs know that effective business relationships are key to their success. What can be done to sustain business engagement in an ongoing way? What techniques do successful CIOs use?

The CIO Executive Board (CEB) defined engagement as “an enduring, collaborative, relationship between IT and business partners where the goal is increased business and IT performance”.

The CEB found that as a result of high levels of engagement between IT and business partners, IT performance improved in some organisations by over 50%. This improvement was reflected by increases in the percentage of projects that meet expected benefits, the percentage of projects delivered on time, and the percentage of projects delivered on budget.

Four Factors Contributing to Strong Engagement

There are four factors, which lead  to strong engagement. These are:
Engagement

  1. IT delivery
  2. Partnership
  3. Consistency, and
  4. Alignment

When these factors are exhibited regularly then engagement between IT and business partners tends to improve.  Let’s looks at each of these factors individually.

IT Delivery – Good IT delivery means that the job always gets done, and business partners feel that IT can be relied upon to give consistent results.

Partnership – A partnership between IT and the business is successful when IT leaders are able to give ideas and insights to the business leaders. IT people help overcome business problems and business leaders respect the IT staff they come into contact with. In a good partnership, business leaders feel that IT is a key contributor to the business’ success.

Consistency – Consistency is achieved when business leaders know what to expect from IT, and there are regular interactions between business and IT partners to discuss both short-term and long-term strategic challenges. Business leaders consider working with IT not as a waste of time, but as a worthwhile activity.

Alignment – Alignment means business and IT leaders agree upon what is important for the organisation, such as decisions about what projects to choose or about resource allocation. When there is alignment between the business and IT, the business understands why IT is making all its choices, even on technical matters or investments.

When all four of the above factors are successfully exhibited within an organisation, the engagement between business and IT leaders is effective. However, more often than not one or more of the factors are week or absent.

  • When delivery is weak, IT is seen to be making too many promises and failing to deliver.
  • When the partnership is not working, IT doesn’t contribute or understand the business needs and IT leaders need to be told what to do.
  • When alignment is missing, IT and business leaders often are in disagreement with each other.
  • When interactions between business and IT leaders are not structured or regular, they drift apart overtime.

Engagement Myths

Engagement MythsWhen the engagement between IT and the business is weak, the typical reactions are to makes excuses, or to go for a quick fix solution. Neither reaction is effective. The typical excuse from IT leaders is that they don’t find enough time to engage with the business. However, the reality is that it is not the amount of time, but quality of the interaction that matters most.

Another myth is that informal conversations and corridor conversations will build relationships and improve engagement. While these conversations build familiarity, they are not a substitute for well-structured and meaningful meetings. Other excuses IT leaders give are that they don’t have right people to drive engagement, or that business partners don’t understand and don’t know how to work with IT. While these excuses may have merit, there are easily implemented strategies that can help increase IT engagement with business partners.

Three Tips for Building Stronger Engagement

1. Focus on Partnership

Most of the discussions between IT and business partners tend to be in the context of service or project delivery. Leaders discuss prioritization, resource allocation, status updates, and service levels. While these discussions are necessary, they don’t build solid partnerships between IT and business leaders. Solid partnerships only begin to form at the management level, when discussions between IT and business partners focus on how they can work effectively together on strategic issues, or to meet business goals. To create time for these discussions, IT leaders should try to decrease the time spent on execution issues or give issues to a lower level of management.

Here are examples of what other CIOs have done:

  1. Conducted an applications portfolio analysis to refocus IT costs;
  2. Run workshops to understand and explicitly align IT goals with business goals and collaborate with business;
  3. Regularly identified technology enabled improvement opportunities (automation, cost take-out, better customer service, and product enhancements) and presented these to business;
  4. Trained staff to use architecture road-maps to focus discussion on the future business needs and opportunities.

2. Don’t wait for the Ideal IT Business Partner

Many CIOs find it hard to recruit an ‘ideal’ IT business partner who: understands both IT and business strategies, engages business partners in strategic opportunities; and relates IT cost drivers and business use. People who can champion business causes within IT and get added project resources when needed are hard to find and can be expensive to develop.

Ideal fitRather than trying to find the ideal candidate, experienced CIOs try to create a team that can support business engagement.  They seek to develop three sets of competencies:

  • Project Management skills;
  • Influencing and Communication skills;
  • Business Knowledge.

Project management skills enable staff to ‘keep commitments’ and manage their team,  influencing skills enable them to get more resources when needed, and business knowledge facilitates effective communication between IT staff and the business.

American Express has developed programs that train project managers on how to manage more complex projects. Other organisations have programs to teach IT staff influencing skills over a six month period. Some organisations have set business knowledge targets for each level of progression and others, like Citibank, have across the board training in different core business activities for staff above a certain level.

3. Structured Communication is more effective than ad hoc Interactions

AgendaSome IT leaders believe that speaking to business partners in workplace corridors, or interacting with them at social events will improve the engagement. However, studies have shown that this is a myth. Structure and regular face to face meetings (such as, steering committees), that provide regular and consistent updates and information to business leaders about the work and progress of IT, are the most effective way of building engagement. Implementing agreed upon protocols for problem resolution or requesting business or IT expertise also help to improve engagement between IT and business leaders.

Rather than just relying on business liaisons to address IT issues, business leaders should agree upon a clear method of working together with IT. Clear IT charters, well-defined meeting guides and an explanation of the role of steering committees will help build engagement. An investment in coaching business partners on how to work with IT will also be beneficial. Such structured interactions improve consistency and transparency and build trust, which is essential for improving engagement.

Structured interactions improve consistency and transparency and build trust. Trust is essential for improving engagement.

Summary

When business engagement is strong, IT performance can improve by over 50%. But only about 40% of IT teams have strong business engagement.

The most important way of improving IT business engagement is to increase the quality, rather than the quantity of time spent between IT and business leaders. IT and business leaders should hold well structured, regular meetings that focus on promoting effective working relationships and improving the performance of both IT and the business.

It is difficult to find IT staff, who are good at working with business leaders. However, improving the project management skills and business knowledge of IT staff will enable IT leaders to create a team that is capable of increasing IT’s engagement with the business.