How the right language can improve business-IT relationships and strategy

The language we use to communicate with our stakeholders can influence the type of relationship we have with them. To enable better business and IT convergence, we need to learn how to talk more like a strategic partner instead of an order taker.

Building Strategic Relationships
Credit: Duisenberg, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Last month I had the opportunity to attend (and present) the first Business Relationship Management (BRM) conference in Portland sponsored by the Business Relationship Management Institute (BRMI). Many exciting discussions took place between the delegates and presenters. One of those conversations was around the language used by the BRM. The question was asked: “How should I be speaking to my business stakeholders so they will consider me an equal and not just a support resource?”

The BRM Body of Knowledge (BRMBoK) defines five business relationship maturity levels, however, only the two lower levels and the final level are relevant to this language discussion. Level 1 is classified as 'ad-hoc' and at this level there is little or no real relationship between the BRM and the stakeholder (in this example, the business is the stakeholder). BRMs at Level 2 are classified as 'order-takers' and at this level, the stakeholder will typically engage the BRM only when they need something. Otherwise they want the BRM to stay out of the way. Level 5 (the highest level) is classified at the 'strategic partner' and at this level, the BRM and the stakeholder share common goals for maximizing value, share risks, as well as rewards.

The challenge is that many BRMs don’t know how to speak using the language of strategic partners. Instead, either they have little or no interaction. And if they do, the interaction language is not conducive  to a strategic level relationship.

As we already discussed, BRMs at the lower levels are classified as ad-hoc or order takers. This could be considered to be a more subservient and passive relationship. Typical words and phrases used at this level include:

“What can I do for you?”

“Customer”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Client”

“Service Provider”

“Let me check”

“I need this now”

“When do you need this?”

“I’m sorry.”

As you can see, these words and phrases do not resonate with someone who wants to be a strategic partner but more with someone taking orders.

The language of use by BRM at level 5 on the other hand is quite different. It is more of an equal-level partnership. Here are some words and phrases used at the strategic partner level:

“This may be of interest to you…”

“What do you think?”

“Partner”

“Business enabling capabilities”

“What does success look like?”

“How much business value are we delivering?”

“What is the 3-year business strategy for our LOB?”

“What are the key performance drivers for our LOB?”

“Long-term plan”

“What is the window of opportunity”

“Big Picture”

Notice the differences not only in language but also in the tone and meaning of the words used. If a BRM wishes to become more of a strategic partners with their stakeholders they need to move away from thinking of the relationship as “me” and “them” to more as “us.” It is not “their” business; it is “our” business. It is not “what can I do for you” but more “what can we to together” to achieve our mutual goals.

The industry talks about how the business and IT need to work together to achieve common organizational goals. Like we discussed in other articles, the term is “IT convergence.” If we truly want to achieve such convergence we need to not only be “walking the walk” but in fact we should begin by “talking the talk.” Our language needs to match the relationship we wish to have first to set the tone for the relationship.

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