I’ve been deeply into understanding and developing the role of Business Relationship Manager (BRM) since the early 1990’s when, as a Partner at Ernst & Young’s Center for Business Innovation, I began researching what was then an emerging role.  Since then, I’ve continued research into this important role, led many consulting engagements helping companies implement or improve the performance of the BRM role, and have been on the faculty for several global BRM development programs.

More recently, I’ve been a co-moderator of the Professional Business Relationship Manager Group on LinkedIn.  This has been a fascinating experience for me – some very interesting dialogs surface from time to time, and the diverse opinions and approaches to the BRM role become ever more evident each day.  Also, the sheer growth of this group over the last couple of years is remarkable, and speaks to the growing importance of the BRM role.

What is a Business Relationship Manager?

First, it is important to understand that this is a role, not a job title.  In fact the job titles for people who fill this role vary enormously.  Adding to the confusion around titles, “Relationship Manager” is a common title in banking, and we get a lot of applications to join the LinkedIn group from banking officers – not the intended audience!  Also, a number of pure “sales” jobs call themselves “relationship managers.”  I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not the focus of the BRM group.

Second, the ways that the BRM role is implemented varies significantly.  Sometimes it is a sole practitioner – other times, the BRM leads a small team (anything from 1 or 2 business analysts to a larger team, including architects and even developers.)  Sometimes the BRM reports to the IT organization – typically as a direct report to the CIO.  Other times, it reports to a business leader – perhaps with a dotted line relationship to the CIO.

No matter what the variations in organization and structure, the common thread across BRM implementations is an interface between business and IT.  The common goal (though expressed and measured in myriad ways!) is to increase the value realized from IT investments (typically, new initiatives), assets (usually current systems and infrastructure) and capabilities (the services and products offered by the IT organization.)

This “interface” responsibility implies two ‘faces’ of the BRM role:

Representing the Business to IT

This is one of the BRM ‘faces’ – representing a given business unit (or units, or business process, or geography) to IT.  In this regard, the BRM’s primary role is in shaping and surfacing business demand – always with an eye to maximizing the business value of IT investments, assets and capabilities.

Representing IT to the Business

This is the other BRM ‘face’ – representing IT to the given business unit(s).  In this regard, the BRM’s primary role is in supply management – ensuring that the IT organization understands business needs and expectations, and is delivering against those expectations.

But, What is the Real Rationale for the BRM Role?

Implicit in the many debates I see in the BRM community (and behind some of the failures I see in making the BRM role successful) is the question:

What is the most important aspect for the BRM to focus on – demand management or supply management?”

There is no easy answer to this – it really is a function of both supply and demand maturity.  But, I will make some assertions based on a great deal of experience:

  1. If supply maturity is low (i.e., basic IT services are unreliable, unpredictable, unstable, unclear) the BRM role will almost certainly fail.  It cannot add real value, spends it’s time apologizing for IT and making excuses, and is quickly seen by the business partner as “overhead.”
  2. If supply maturity is moderate (i.e., basic IT services work well, but capacity is highly constrained, projects take too long to deliver and are prone to delays) the BRM role has to play a careful balancing act – stimulating and shaping demand while living within the constraints of supply.
  3. If supply maturity is high (i.e., a well regarded IT organization that delivers basic services and project work; that has ‘elastic’ supply that can flex with demand and can deliver with ‘agility’) the BRM role can and should focus almost exclusively on demand shaping and surfacing.

Of these three situations, scenario 1 is the most treacherous for the BRM.  It’s essentially a losing proposition.  My advice to clients is, “Don’t put BRM’s in place – fix the basic services first!”

Scenario 2 takes a great deal of finesse.  The temptation for the BRM is to either try to fix the problems of supply, or shield the business partner from those problems.  Fixing supply is best done with those on the supply side who are responsible and accountable for IT supply.  If you put the BRM in that role, they can’t be effective in their demand management role.  Once their business partners see them as part of the supply side, the BRM loses their credibility as valuable demand shapers.

Why would I invite you to my leadership team strategy retreat – you’re the person who’s fixing IT services!” might be the reaction of a business leader to a BRM who has asked to join the business unit’s strategy formulation retreat.

On the other hand, shielding the business partner from supply side woes is also a trap – what I refer to as “colluding with dysfunctional behavior” which is never a good idea!

Scenario 2 also takes great skill with the discipline of ‘value management’ – understanding how IT investments, assets and capabilities lead to business value – making sure that the constrained supply is working on the highest value possibilities, ensuring that low value requests do not get through the intake process and that value is actually ‘realized’ – felt and seen by the business.

Scenario 3 is the ‘holy grail’ for the BRM.  Unfortunately, by the time IT supply has reached that level of maturity, so has business demand, and the BRM role may be redundant.  But that’s a story for another post…

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