by Minda Zetlin

5 reasons you need a business relationship manager

Mar 11, 202012 mins
Business IT AlignmentCareersIT Leadership

To better liaison with the business and bolster IT's strategic cred, CIOs are increasingly turning to BRMs. Here's how to locate the right talent and make the most of this hybrid leadership role.

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Is your IT group overwhelmed with competing demands from different business functions for new or improved technologies they say they need to do their work efficiently? If you’re like most IT leaders, your answer is probably yes. And the solution may surprise you: Hire a business relationship manager.

A business relationship manager (BRM) — who may also be called a business-IT liaison or some similar title — is an executive-level employee whose role is to act as a bridge between business and IT, making sure the highest-level priorities are addressed, educating business leaders about the benefits new technology can provide, and making sure business value is achieved when new tools or products are deployed. And one of a business relationship manager’s most important functions is to help determine which requests and initiatives should take immediate priority, and which should wait or be set aside altogether.

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“Many times, when I talk to clients about a BRM, the CIO says, ‘I have a backlog of 1,000 requests. If I start with a BRM that will double to 2,000 requests,’” says Cassio Dreyfuss, a vice president on the CIO research team at Gartner. “What happens is exactly the opposite. Why? Because the BRM is able to talk to the business and say, ‘This is not really important. This will be necessary next year. Why don’t we concentrate here?’ So the number of demands will go down rather than up.”

Beyond helping to keep the demand for IT projects to a reasonable level, a BRM can perform some extremely useful functions. Here are five reasons you need a business relationship manager, and how to prepare your organization to make the most of having one.

1. To make sense of your existing tech portfolio and projects

“Any area where the process or system that’s in place isn’t efficient, either because resources are being poured into it that shouldn’t be, or because people don’t have the appropriate tools, BRMs can help because they have the tools and training around setting strategy and goals and metrics, and they can assess what the ultimate value is,” says Danielle Dizes, former content strategist and knowledge champion at the Business Relationship Management Institute in Atlanta. “They might assess a project and say, ‘Why isn’t this working?’ or that this isn’t the appropriate time for the project. They look at a process, and based on the metrics, determine if the project is valuable to us right now and whether we should keep moving forward or, if not, whether we should hold on to it for later.”

2. To identify unmet technology needs

This is the function that can scare CIOs, Dreyfuss notes. But the truth is, your organization will benefit from eliminating or delaying projects that don’t create immediate value — but also from finding opportunities to add value even if business leaders aren’t aware of them.

“BRMs can bring demand to the surface, help shape the demand, and ensure potential business value is captured,” Dizes says. “They can help with ideation, value plans, communication, and continuous improvement.” BRMs are ideally positioned to identify ways that technology can advance business objectives, she adds.

3. To educate business leaders on what tech can (and can’t) do for them

“The people you use to build that bridge need to understand they are also there to coach stakeholders about what can and can’t be done, what’s possible, and what should be done,” says Tim Wenhold, CIO at Power Home Remodeling in Chester, Pennsylvania. “But they’re also really good at living in two worlds. They understand what the business needs.”

“These individuals need to have that consultative mindset and be willing to introduce creative tension into the conversation — or they’ll be relegated to order-taking,” adds Chris Bedi, CIO at digital workflow company ServiceNow.

4. To represent absent business leaders

“The book says once you develop a solution for your internal business clients, the representative for that client is required to attend team meetings, perform testing, and other things,” Dreyfuss says. “The truth is, they say ‘Yeah, we will participate,’ and they don’t.” When that happens, he says, “The BRM will become the surrogate client for the purposes of that solution. And that works very well.”

5. To find technological synergies across business domains

Meg Ramsey is vice president of cloud services product management at Sungard Availability Services in Wayne, Pennsylvania. But in a previous role, she worked as a de facto business relationship manager (her title was senior IT business analyst). Looking for opportunities to spread the benefits of technology initiatives throughout the company was a key component of her job, she says.

“One of our major programs was creating a historical repository for ongoing sales opportunities,” she recalls. “Salesforce or another CRM platform gives a view to one point in time, but if you want to do any historical tracking, you need to do it in a different way.” Before starting the project, Ramsey found other ways the new repository could serve the company. “I would take the requirements from the subject matter experts and then seed that into other functions, such as marketing,” she explains. “I’d say, ‘This is what I’m doing for the sales team. Is there anything you’d like me to do as part of this product?’ That’s the kind of thing a business relationship manager should be responsible for.”

Structuring the BRM role

How does a BRM fit into the organization? In most cases, experts agree, he or she should report through IT, usually to the CIO. “The function of the job is to elevate IT to become a strategic business leader, transitioning it away from solely providing service,” Dizes says. “That role can look like helping to define the business strategy. BRMs are blended executives. They should be reporting to and working directly with the CIO.”

Dreyfuss notes that it’s important to distinguish the BRM role from that of a project manager. “The job includes creating requirements for a solution and the business case for that solution,” he says. “But they don’t execute much. The BRM will design the solution with the objective in mind. Then everything developed until that point is handed to project managers who will develop the project.” What’s wrong with having BRMs oversee projects through completion? “We want to optimize what project managers do best, which is running teams at high levels of efficiency,” Dreyfuss explains.

Not everyone agrees. Bedi, for one, says that on the contrary, it’s important for BRMs to see projects through from their beginning to completion and beyond. “Too many organizations declare the finish line to be when the project is done,” he says. “They don’t get to the real finish line, which is finding out if we got to that desired outcome.”

While Dreyfuss is in favor of defining the business relationship manager role as a strategist who leaves execution to a project manager, Bedi sees flaws in that approach and says he “struggles” with the concept of a pure BRM.

“They need to have the people who will actually do the work reporting to them as well,” he says. “Otherwise, they’ll be seen as just a go-between and it’s harder for them to enact change or respond quickly. The value of having this role is the agility and speed with which they can react to what the organization needs.” Besides, he says, “My bias is toward accountability, and not having the execution part dilutes accountability.”

It’s important, Dreyfuss says, to differentiate between a BRM and a product manager, an increasingly popular IT role that includes some business relationship management functions. Product managers are responsible for understanding the requirements and business benefits of specific technology products and initiatives throughout the organization. And, Dreyfuss admits, some of his Gartner colleagues believe the product manager role will eventually supplant that of the BRM.

“Right now, the BRM role is still growing,” he says. “Every day, I talk to clients who are implementing a BRM. But some of my colleagues say this is not a permanent role. They say that when you fully implement the concept of a product manager, the BRM will not be necessary anymore. I say no, they will work together very well. Product managers will be concerned about one product for all clients, and BRMs will be concerned about all products for one client.”

BRMs in the real world

At Power Home Remodeling, eight IT employees fulfilling the BRM role have the title “producteer” (with a nod to Disney Imagineering). Each producteer oversees two cross-functional work teams within their assigned areas, which include installation services, HR/talent acquisition, workforce products, communications products, and sales. Wenhold says the company will soon create two more producteer-led teams, a second one in HR and one in corporate finance. He also says he has reassigned teams from areas that requested them when the business stakeholders consistently failed to attend team meetings.

Although producteers spend much of their time in meetings with their business colleagues, they report through the business technology department, as it’s called instead of “IT.” They have their offices there so that they don’t lose the benefit of day-to-day interaction with developers and other technologists. If he had to do it over, Wenhold says, he would deploy the same people but move them away from a project-by-project focus much more quickly. “With a project, stakeholders are only vested in one little point in time,” he explains. “You want to get people in the business excited about being part of the tech initiative — it becomes a business initiative and a tech initiative. They feel ownership, and the producteer is giving them support.”

Who makes a good business relationship manager?

Where should you look for a good BRM candidate? All of Power Home Remodeling’s producteers came from the business, not IT, Wenhold says. “One person has been in the company nine years. He spent eight of them in sales, and now he’s the producteer for the sales department.”

Ramsey says she started out with a communications degree from a technical school. “But I am an analytical thinker. I think that’s one of the key traits for a BRM and a business analyst in general. What helped me is that I moved around among departments. I started in sales, got to know their processes really well, and then moved into operations. My broad experience in multiple functions allowed me to understand how a customer moved through the company.”

As to whether it’s best to promote a BRM from within or hire one from outside, she says that both strategies can work. “It’s great to promote a rising star to one of these positions,” she says. “It puts them on a really interesting management track. You go from being singularly focused on your function to caring about the broader business.” It will also help the BRM be more effective more quickly because he or she will have existing relationships within the organization. “What helped me accelerate was that I knew who I needed to talk to get something done.”

A BRM coming in from outside won’t have those existing relationships, she says. On the other hand, bringing in someone from outside can be helpful “if you’ve never had this function before and you need someone who’s done it before to set up the process.”

Good BRMs evolve in their jobs, Dreyfuss adds. “When they initially start, BRMs will be little more than a business analyst with a vision that goes beyond or higher than the internal processes of a specific area,” he says. “As they mature in the role, they become indispensable, not only to the business area, but to the CIO.”

The BRM’s importance will only grow over time, Bedi says. “Every company in every industry has said, ‘We’re not an XYZ company, we’re a technology company,’” he says. “Being able to take a company’s strategy and innovations in tech and meld those together into a cohesive IT strategy is more critical now than in the last decade. And that relevance isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to increase.”

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