Instigating A Business Partner Function

Skanska UK Plc, Tony Michaels

Many central departments have recognised that the interaction between the IT function and the rest of the organisation are not as good as they could be. Indeed quite often we exacerbate this division with ‘us’ and ‘them’ type references. I have heard many times people bemoaning of the other ‘they just don’t understand us’ and ‘they are asking the wrong question’.

So… (drum roll)….. Introducing the IT Business Partner.... (cymbals clash) ….That’s the answer, because with one role sitting in the middle, IT no longer have to speak with the business, and the business have one person to deal with from IT.  Easy, right?

Our Mission

Why have a Business Partner/BRM at all? What are they there for? What do they do? The  key people in the organisation who influence in my experience all have a different opinion. I have seen different roles fulfilled by a Business Partner across different organisations, from a guide to help navigate the way through processes of funding and business cases through to strategic instigator helping all parties realise value across initiatives. None of these are right or wrong – but it is paramount for all parties to agree on what the Business Partner is there for – that is, defining their mission. This then helps position the role within the rest of the organisation.

To help answer this question, we can use the Strategic IT Partner Value Model from the Reconnaissance for IT® framework of Baxter Thompson Associates to facilitate conversations with people:

In this model, the mission is the unifying purpose that all people could agree too, yet lower down, there is recognition of where the organisation is at, and what areas of focus contribute to the value people care about most. Hence, the interpretation of the role can flex, so long as there is one unifying purpose. To apply this model, it is simply a question of arranging a meeting with a senior decision maker and agreeing the mission, what vision we are aiming for and then helping understand the competencies required to achieve the vision and how much time  should be allocated to each area.

On the one hand, the role of the IT Business Partner may retreat, at least in part, to a demand limiting one where business departments who ask for many fixes and small changes. It may also become a role of filling in the gaps where the IT delivery has holes in  Business Analysis and Project Management etc. depending on the existing portfolio of skills the IT Business Partner has and whether they have the time to practice the competencies listed above.

On the other hand, the role of the IT Business Partner may advance - The model above shows the level of maturity and the skills needed that enable them. So depending on the size of the organisation and the scarcity of resource, it may well be necessary to equip existing roles such as Business Analysis etc. with those competencies in the model above for the organisation to progress to a more strategic state.

A leading indicator of success is the total time spent in these competencies by practitioners, whether by IT Business Partners focusing on aspects full-time or other roles part-time.

Finally, The positioning of the mission and the associated roles by the CIO can help massively in this debate. In fact it will also be influenced greatly by the CIO’s own position in the organisation and the regard in which IT is held.

Our Contribution

Many times I have heard about ‘winning their spurs’ and ‘sitting at the top table’ which is fine and great, but individual Business Partners often languish in trying to obtain these credentials, relying too much on their personality traits and their cultural ‘fit’ into the area of the organisation they are working with; or by resting on the laurels of their existing skills. I believe sitting at the table is a blend of both delivery through the consistent application of knowledge, skills and personality traits.

Our contribution should be very much driven by the conversation around our Mission.  If the position is to be contributing to the formulation of business and technology strategies – through to the portfolio management and benefits tracking of the delivered projects – then clearly someone who is capable in this area would be great. Understanding the skills and behaviour traits necessary to fulfil the mission help drive a Job Description and People Profile. It’s a tough balancing act, the person also needs to get on with and empathise with the area of the business that they work with as well as deliver. Getting the stakeholders involved in the recruitment process and defining a competency model can help greatly to assess where there is a shortage of skills and whether a candidate demonstrates the right behaviours.

I believe that a good IT Business Partner  has transferable skills across sectors – in fact one of the best IT Business Partners that has worked in my own team did not come from my own sector. A well-balanced team can include people from your own business, They are likely to have strong relationships already with business peers straight off the bat.

Mission Possible!

The Business Partner world is a fairly small but developing one, there are many good sources of information for helping how to make the function successful. “Sitting at the top table’ is possible but not the real point. Fulfilling the mission – rallying round our unifying purpose - requires careful blend of skills, experience and behaviours that need to be defined, trained, reviewed and recruited.

Tony Michaels is an experienced Information Technology Business Partner with a demonstrated history of working in the construction industry, and the implementation of a BRM function.

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