How CIOs can make Business Relationship Management (BRM) work

In this Q&A, Vaughan Merlyn, cofounder of the Business Relationship Management Institute, offers advice on how IT executives can effectively work with Business Relationship Managers and identify employees who are well suited for BRM positions.

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You established a business relationship management (BRM) function a few years ago, and it started out great. Your business partners seemed to really value this dedicated liaison between IT and their business functions. But after a few months of periodic system outages and other operational problems, the BRM got stuck in the weeds. She wound up working on issues that were more tactical than strategic, and the dream of a professional positioned to "shape business demand and ensure business value realization" began to fade. 

vaughan merlyn brmi Vaughan Merlyn via LinkedIn

Business Relationship Management Institute Cofounder Vaughan Merlyn.

So you made some adjustments, and now everything is going great again. Either that or you and your business partners got so frustrated with the BRM function that you got rid of it, and you are back to a structure where your development leaders own the relationships with your business partners.

Today, with digital transformation raining new demands down upon IT, you need a well-running BRM function more than ever. To learn how CIOs can make this critical role a success, I caught up with Vaughan Merlyn, cofounder of the Business Relationship Management Institute.

Martha Heller: What is a Business Relationship Manager (BRM)?

Vaughan Merlyn: A BRM is a senior executive who typically reports to IT but pays as much attention to the business side of the house as the IT side. BRMs understand enough about the business and the technology landscape that they can surface opportunities for IT to add business value and work with cross-functional teams to execute on those opportunities.

BRMs are passionately engaged in the process of ensuring that IT and its business partners engage in all of the activities necessary to identify opportunities to create business value and to harness that value. They are not just bringing ideas. Their ultimate goal is to see that business value is captured, communicated and recognized. That puts them in a different position than anyone else in IT. 

What can CIOs do to position BRMs for success?

First, CIOs have to position the role appropriately. Some organizations assume BRMs are gap fillers, people who do the jobs that no one else wants to do. But if you position BRMs both as members of the business management team and the IT management team, they can have impact on both sides.

Second, CIOs must choose BRMs who have the right competencies to be in the role. It's no use introducing a junior analyst to a senior business executive and asking her to treat him as a member of your management team. If the BRM has low emotional intelligence (EQ) and a lack of business knowledge, they will not be accepted as a partner.

Finally, CIOs need to be sure that they have a handle on the basics of IT before they introduce the BRM function. If email keeps going down, the BRM will not be able to build credibility and establish trust, regardless of his skills or positioning.

Why do BRM functions sometimes fail?

A common mistake that CIOs make is positioning the BRM as a single point of contact between IT and a critical business function. When that happens, the BRMs get dragged down into operational issues pretty quickly. They become overwhelmed with the rate of requests, and at the same time, they alienate their colleagues in IT, who are not BRMs, but who are used to interacting with business colleagues. The BRM is a single point of focus on value realization but not a single point of contact.

But probably the most frequent cause of failure is when the BRM is not senior enough or is not positioned appropriately to become an accepted member of the business function's management team.

What skills should CIOs look for in a BRM?

They should start by asking some basic questions. Does this person have the business acumen to understand the processes, metrics and goals of the part of the business she is partnering with? Does she have enough experience in IT to understand our processes? Does she have the communication skills to demystify those processes for our business partners?

At BRMI we use a BRM competency model that has these major categories:

  • Strategic partnering.
  • Business IQ.
  • Portfolio management.
  • Provider domain.
  • Business transition management.
  • Powerful communications.

The BRM needs a good balance of competencies across all these categories in order to recognize and exploit value-delivering opportunities and be able to influence and persuade their stakeholders regarding these opportunities. In many ways, effective BRMs are agents of change.

How do I assess a BRM's performance?

I urge anyone who is establishing a BRM function to define a competency model (or leverage generic BRM competency models, such as the one from BRMI) for the role and a plan for validating those competencies. With BRMs, it is easier to develop trailing metrics than leading metrics, but leading metrics can be more helpful. Leading metrics might include the number and type of business meetings the BRM is attending. Trailing metrics might be the amount of value flowing into business cases. For trailing metrics consider an annual survey to ask your business partners whether they would want to work with the BRM for another year, or be willing to pay their salary and benefits.

Where can CIOs find people with BRM qualifications?

Traditionally, BRMs have grown up in IT, but we are starting to see more and more successful BRMs come out of a business area. They are IT literate, are probably doing something with technology outside of work, and they really understand the business. We are starting to see that a business background is more important to the success of a BRM than an IT background.

If you keep an eye out for potential BRMs, they will surface. These are the people who are often a pain in the neck. They come into your office and challenge you, and after they leave, you think, "That person has some great ideas and is passionate about following them through." Look for the noisemakers who are not satisfied with the status quo, and put them on a BRM career path. If you think about it, you probably already know who they are.

About Vaughan Merlyn

Merlyn cofounded the Business Relationship Management Institute in early 2013. Since 2009, he has been a principal with The Merlyn Group, which helps companies improve organizational clarity and performance, and define and improve their operating models. Prior to that he was employed by Genera. Merlyn received a Bachelor's of Science in electrical engineering from the University of Salford, in the United Kingdom, and he holds BRMP and CBRM certifications.

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