Finding the Right IT Business Partner

Podcast #3

Baxter Thompson Ltd, Jon Baxter

FInding the Right IT Business Partner - Podcast #3

Looking at to our recent surveys, forums and ongoing discussions with the IT Business Partnering community, it has become more apparent that finding the right IT Business Partner for the right IT Business Partnering role is becoming more of a challenge.

In the latest Baxter Thompson Associates podcast Jon Baxter and James O’Driscoll discuss some of issues the IT Business Partnering community are currently experiencing and what can be done to resolve these challenges.  The interview covers a number of subjects including role conflict, competencies, role maturity, personal development and training. 



Hello and welcome to the latest IT Business Partnering podcast hosted by Baxter Thompson Associates! 

In a change from the norm Jon Baxter will be interviewed by myself, James O’Driscoll of Gilbert Scott Associates. Today we’ll be discussing some of the issues the IT business partner and community are currently experiencing with regards to finding the right talent for the right IT business partnering role. 

James O’Driscoll, Gilbert Scott Associates:
First of 
all it’s probably best if we do a quick intro. If you give a quick synopsis in terms of your background from IT business partnering and when you started within this world of business partnering, and what you’re doing now

Jon Baxter, Baxter Thompson Associates: 
I’ve been working as a business partner now for over 13 to 14 years. I came over to the IT side of activities in that time. Before, I was working as a consultant in supply chain working at Deloitte, I did an MBA and then started working with the IT department as a business support manager. That was my first introduction to working, representing the services of IT to the rest of the business, and it was a real eye-opener. When I look back now, the time I had there I think I was working more as a projects manager and a services delivery manager so really the idea of working say more strategically was still yet to manifest itself and it took another couple of roles to start to identify what that meant and you work as a strategic partner with business and IT.

JD: When was that? I think it has evolved hasn’t it, the BP role, so when did you, when was this accounts manager role, I think it’s how it started off is it fair to say? Or would you disagree with that? 

JB: are you talking about my personal experience?

JD: Personal experience yes

JB: Yes I wouldn’t say it was an accounts management role. I mean, there were some tenets of accounts management in it but it wasn’t the main preoccupation - it still had a very much an IT delivery focus about it.  But it was clear that the business engagement had a substantial impact on the effectiveness of that role I had whilst I was working at Johnson & Johnson. 

What does that mean? So it’s some aspects of influence, it’s communication skills, which is very different from the technical skills you would need to apply say from a service delivery project management perspective, so the consultancy I did say at Deloitte helped identify some of those competencies for example but overall looking at subsequent positions, trying to employ those competencies and still be effective when you realise it’s not just yourself as a person but also the organisation context to whether you can be a successful business partner or not. So, how well do the IT services get delivered is one question.

JD: Its key one as well isn’t it – it’s key that, if you, if their services aren’t there, if the IT’s not delivering, then the business partnering is never going to work in my opinion.

JB: Well, there can be a level of business partnering but it’s what kind of partnering it will be, so if the services aren’t seen as being effective, if you’re trying to engage and work strategically with a business stakeholder then they’re probably going to be more focused on fixing their Blackberry or asking what is happening about the latest server outage, or why does it take so long to get stuff sorted or projects delivered, which as an IT business partner, representing IT, you end up either firefighting, or making excuses on behalf of IT, or trying to fix problems and doing continuous service improvement. So it really then challenges the role of the IT business partner in the first instance so if you can get reliable services and project delivery sorted, reduce the noise for that substantially, then you may be able to create some space and time with your business stakeholders to actually have a different conversation.

JD: So it’s important, what else? 

JB: One of the key things first that adds value to the business and IT is validating the work being undertaken and whether it meets the business outcomes required, so what are the business outcomes? And then secondly, how is the IT work aligned to those business outcomes, so you have to link the strategy to IT, and that linkage, the creation of that linkage is a demonstration of value. 

So IT itself not a revenue generator per se unless you’re a company like UBER or something like that where most the company is just technology; most organisations still rely on IT services. So you have to demonstrate the linkage between the business activity and the IT enablers, and that is not done very well in most organisations I’ve worked in and most organisations I’m talking to. So there’s a great opportunity to demonstrate the value of the linkage. 

The second thing, once you’ve been able to do that, is to assess how well the service is being delivered against that. So once you’ve got the linkage you can then say, ok, is this service actually delivering a value and asking that question, having a consistent and rigorous approach to that helps really to assess how well the IT service is performing, whether it’s performing against expectations - and I use that word carefully expectations, business expectations - and then do we need to make adjustments as a consequence. And so in a nutshell that means value management. 

Value management is a well-understood competency, that from the survey we did last year we know that it’s one of the least practised and difficult to implement. I think there is a lack of desire to reflect back and see how well we’re doing. We’re always pushing towards the next shiny project, the next new initiative, that as an organisation - not just IT or business - our culture generally keeps moving forwards without looking back and seeing how well we have performed. 

JD: Yes, absolutely I agree in fact, certainly for the survey we’ve done and even the last forum the value, there wasn’t much that had thought about it that much had they? They were quite keen to talk about role conflict and everything else but value management there wasn’t a huge amount of stuff coming out. So that’s a fair point. 

JB: Yes, and I reckon my past experience I’ll put my hand up here and say, is this something I’ve done not as well, and I recognise I could have made a much bigger difference by focusing on this area. So, we tend to, in terms of role conflict, for example, which is one of the bigger, biggest challenges, in fact, we have to move into a space which is unoccupied in the organisation, and value management is a space which is quite often unoccupied. 

Yes, we’re able to demonstrate the linkage between business activities and IT services, the direction it’s taking, we can demonstrate value immediately, and it does justify our role as IT business partners. So I would say that subsequently, the maturity of the role is still in its infancy. I see from an industry perspective overall a lack of clarity and understanding of what IT business partnering is. I think the actual application of the role as a consequence can be confused and there is a substantial degree of interpretation as a consequence. So that lack of clarity is I think one of the fundamental problems as to why there’s properly less traction then there could be today.

JD: It’s interesting that, we talked about that at the last forum didn’t we and it was one of the big things that came up, in terms of that clarity and what people had tried to do to resolve it and I think there were some good suggestions there but I don’t think we had the hard and fast answers either, if you can agree with that?

JB: Yes, and there are no hard and fast answers because the effectiveness of the role as always is dependent on the organisation context, so I suggest that we have a mandate; a clear communication about what constitutes the activities of IT business partnering, we state it clearly in the document, there are statements that say these are the things we do, and we get agreement, we get sponsorship for that, and once we’ve got sponsorship for it we negotiate our role with other people in the organisation, like enterprise architects, like programme managers, and service delivery managers. We’re more able to argue effectively the position and the role in the organisation. 

JD: What’s your view Jon on the core and non-core duties? It’s very interesting I think one of our delegates raised it, they have a core competency for this particular role and then they have a non-core that they can take on but they don’t have to if there are other people better suited to it. What’s your idea of that? 

JB: Well I would say it depends on the level of maturity in the organisation. Inevitably, in order to provide a basic level of service, you need to have some core competencies. If we say OK IT business partnership is fundamental to the organisation then to be able to provide a minimum service to the rest of the organisation I would argue that relationship and value management competencies are key. 

So I would argue that at that level, at a service delivery level so to speak, we should be accountable for the performance of the network and ecosystem of relationships in the organisation, so we have the authority and the mandate to challenge our peers, to engage effectively, and to communicate effectively with the rest of the organisation. Quite often IT has a reputation of poor communication and as IT business partners who have the accountability to help our IT organisation improve, we should be in a position at least to suggest those improvements and hold our other peers who do have communication responsibilities to account. 

JD: From a recruitment perspective if you’re looking to hire someone in, either whether that’s an internal member of staff or external member of staff, now that kind of stuff is very hard to quantify do you not agree? That’s a tough ask, so how do you go about doing that? 

JB: I’m a firm believer in people playing to their strengths, I think we need to be clear on what the future organisation model is going to be and then describing the skills and then recruiting either internally or externally to what’s necessary.  

JD: And what about, we’ve touched upon stakeholders, the business has got to be the right level, i.e. there’s no point in putting in a strategic partner that fits what we class as a good business partner, but then stakeholder says ‘this is a very tactical level, and there’s no need for’ and doesn’t buy into that sort of strategic stuff and therefore we’re going to have conflict there aren’t we?

So what’s your view of identifying the right level of competency at the stakeholder level as well as the individual, so as well as the individual hire coming in - isn’t it also about that stakeholder as well? 

JB: Absolutely. So this is where you need to have a survey of your stakeholders to really understand their expectations and needs, and what level will they be playing at. So, some call it a stakeholder mapping exercise; most people I think would be familiar with say a MoSCoW type criteria assessment for requirements, must have, should have or whatever. The idea is you can graduate certain expectations and I suggest certainly on the training courses I deliver that the type of expectations really is a leading indicator as to the level of maturity. So, if a business stakeholder is asking for purely tactical small change, that’s either a challenge to the IT organisation to get its act together, or simply it has a limited understanding of technology.

JD: My other hat, recruitment hat, so if I were to be given a new assignment, would you agree to the stakeholder mapping first to understand what they want from their business partner and then do the competency? 

JB: Yes, so my challenge to the hiring manager would be to say, ‘what’s the level of need and expectation in the business stakeholder community’, and is that appropriate for the business strategy? So while there could be a gap between, let’s say the companies in a very dynamic industry, in order to survive is going to have to make substantial changes to the way it does business, however the business stakeholders are either not prepared to accept it or recognise it, or don’t understand that need, so the CIO’s ability to affect change, whether it’s from a business perspective or a technology perspective is going to be extremely limited. Would a business partner coming into the organisation be effective in the role, whether they are strategic or operational or not? That’s the challenge. 

So, how much influence does the IT organisation already have, and is it going to be best enacted through IT business partnering, because if we need substantial organisational change in the business stakeholder community first, to get alignment and acceptance of the business strategy, then that would probably be a prerequisite foundational requirement before you can bring in strategic IT business partners.

JD: That’s got to be the CIO’s job, the CIO’s got to be doing that really, rather than asking a BP to be doing that I would suggest.

 JB: And that’s one of the modes of failure, trying to delegate the responsibility of strategic partnering down not being fully aware of the business context you can get into hot water quite quickly because if a strategic partner is trying to work strategically and the business doesn’t accept the need for it then there are better uses for your money really.

JD: Yes absolutely, I think it’s interesting at times where the BP sits as well, I think that’s always a fairly clear indicator sometimes, in terms of the organigram, where the business partner sits is a fairly clear pitch of that isn’t it, if they’re fairly low down the food chain in the organigram then, they’re probably not the best, most regarded in terms of strategic leader I’d suggest.

JB: Well that’s a very good point actually James, yeah I agree! If you’ve got low down, then the amount of influence - I mean if you’re talking about a hierarchical, control-orientated organisation structure then yes low down you’re probably not going to get much influence. It depends on the culture of the organisation and how empowered people are to influence, that’s a consideration. I’ve spoken to three or four IT organisations where they’ve had BRMs or IT business partners and they’ve decommissioned the whole competency simply because the value is not appreciated and so it’s been service orientated, people don’t view their business activities longer than the next three months, it’s extract as much value out of the current operations as possible so what’s the point? And it’s a valid reason. 

JD: yes, why have two service delivery functions

JB: Yes, absolutely and if you are fighting over service delivery then service delivery wins at the end of the day and you can spend the money on, or save the money and put it back into the shareholder funds or…….

JD: *laughter* it was an ironic laugh I think - we’ve got to keep the shareholders happy. So if we’ve identified it as, we’ve got it’s the right level, in terms of we do the stakeholder mapping, for let’s say we’re going back to a new role, because again if we remember forums we hear a lot of people saying about struggling to get the right people in place into roles, whether these are internal hires or external hires. 

Even if their internal hires if they have the right competencies or not the right competencies, they struggle or they haven’t the right competencies to match to the business stakeholder they’re going to really struggle. So if we’ve identified the stakeholder mapping, we understand what level they’re at and what they need is from the Business partner, the right kind of level that the business partner can certainly start achieving things, so that’s the first thing. 

The second thing, sometimes to find that person that fits the current competencies but also can demonstrate the ability, so he has the core values of the relationship and value management so does have the ability if not at a 
level to become that more strategic and innovating, how do we do that? 

JB: In terms of recruitment? 

JD: What tools are available?

JB: So the activities, if you’re working at a strategic partner level I would say, start to think about defining, when I say defining I don’t mean on behalf of, it’s reflecting and articulating the business strategy and IT strategy. 

That’s an activity in itself - the translation of that into a portfolio of change, which then identifies which areas of the business and technology are most impacted by that, the creation of road maps which are an outcome of that as well. Those are specific activities that, which can be skilled, which can train up for, people can practice.

I would certainly say that needs to operate at a senior level within the organisation, so obviously from a business relationship management perspective needs gravitas and ability with the business stakeholders to start entertaining that kind of conversation, and that is far more difficult to teach. In fact, I wouldn’t use the word teach, you can coach it, but people who become the coachees need to respond to feedback, need to be committed to personal change and be disciplined in the practice of the behaviours which are necessary for that. And there needs to be a judgement call from a personal perspective you know, is this something I want to do, is it a personal change I’m willing to go through? Does it respond to my values, and do I see the benefit of that in terms of career progression? 

Because there’s a lot of risk involved, you’re moving outside the comfort zone of your personal profile so you’re having to act, speak differently and mastering that takes a lot of trial and error. So you need to find a person who is prepared to subject themselves to that kind of coaching and that adoption of behaviours.

JD: Coaching, is it coaching? Are business partners born, not made? We always talk about it, say 50% of the business partner is soft skills so as we’ve talked before, gravitas, influence, relationship building all that kind of stuff, I’m still not convinced you could train that. I think you could give guidance, things to help so there’s things like NLP can help you there, but ultimately if you’re not the kind of person who can build relationships with people, there’s no way, all the coaching in the world isn’t going to help you.  

JB: So I’ll use my own personal experience at the end of the day, I am a process orientated person

JD: Never!

JB: Never? Yes, there you go, the cats out of the bag (laughter) I talk technically, and you know the personal journey I’ve been on has been a process of trial and error, I’ve tried different techniques to engage people with, but the people I speak to say I’ve improved enormously but that’s not through any specific training course; it’s been through coaching, it’s being personally aware and it’s being able to adapt to your profile, so you can change, you have to be committed and disciplined to do it. Are people born with it? I’d say some people are much stronger suited to do some of the behavioural competencies than others, that’s just a fact of life. 

But it’s not impossible so I would say the level of investment required for that person, or indeed the hiring manager has to make the decision do we recruit or do we coach, what’s the trade-off there? And that’s a judgment, it’s a value-based decision, and it’s a discussion between the people who are impacted by that and there’s no right or wrong answer to it but I think people can change, you just have to be committed and disciplined to that change it’s as simple as that. It’s hard work, its emotionally-draining but from my perspective, it’s worth it.    

JD: Thank you, when people listen to this podcast is there anything that’s absolutely key that will help individuals find the right people for the right jobs in their organisations?

JB: I would say being aware of what the competencies are…

JD: The individual or the company? Or both?

JB: Both. For two or three companies at the moment and that is exactly the debate, what are the competencies of the IT business partner, and they approach it from various different angles, they use different sources but fundamentally it’s an organisation decision, at the end of the day. Once they’ve made that decision they recruit or train according to that competency model. Baxter Thompson Associates has a competency model and we evaluate organisations and individuals on that basis and that is a clear indicator. 

The point is there is nothing new in these competencies; it’s really ring-fencing what those competencies are and saying what competencies are we going to attribute to the IT business partner role and that’s an exercise that organisation has got to go through working with the HR department. Once you’ve got that it becomes a much easier debate and recruitment, training and coaching. And I would argue in my experience, relationship, management, evaluation, value management, strategy management, portfolio management, and some elements of organisational change management are necessary to be effective on a strategic level for IT business partners. 

JD: Okay, thank you. You’ve mentioned this competency model; can people find that online or is that something you’d need to get in touch with you about. 

 JB: That’s something you’d need to get in touch with me about.  

Visit to get in touch

JD: Thank you. And I guess just before we finish up it’s probably worthwhile just for the overall Baxter Thompson Associates business partner community is there anything else you want to make the guys aware of in the community that's coming up that of interest to them?

JB: We have a forum next week on the 19th of July, so that’s getting pretty full. I think we’ve got about twenty people already booked onto that, and that’s talking about, guess what, Value Management! So, that was the request at the end of the last forum 

JD: Yes it was

JB: So yes I’ve had to put pen to paper, so a short discussion on that for 10-15 minutes and then try and get the business partner community talking about their experiences and their challenges, seeing if they are prepared to, or if the hints and tips I provide are sufficient to get a little bit closer to their end goal. 

Otherwise, what else is on the horizon? Well we have training courses, we do BRMP and we have three or four new services that are going to be making their appearance soon. We’ve just launched the IT business partner overview of that service so that’s a half day workshop where the competency model and the organisational maturity is discussed. It helps the CIO understand whether they should do IT business partnering or not, and if they want to go ahead with it how they would implement it - in what area of the business which would have the most impact, so that’s something which is being launched and done and been very well received. 

JD: Well look, lovely Jon been nice speaking to you, I hope our listeners find the conversation of some use but clearly if the community has any questions or any points we always welcome comments as always.

JB: James, thank you very much, it’s nice to be interviewed for once. 

JD: Thanks, Jon!

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