by N. Dean Meyer

What Does It Mean for IT to Be Partners in the Business

Nov 30, 20059 mins
IT Leadership

IT departments are no longer order-takers, so naturally being "partners in the business" sounds great. But what does that really mean?

Dean Meyer

“Partners in the business.” Of course, every CIO likes the ring of that. The phrase evokes images of strategic relevance and great relationships with clients.

But what does this buzzword really mean? I’m reminded of my friend’s wife who said, “We’re partners, so give me your wallet and we’ll split it 50/50!”

In fact, some interpretations of partnership are insidious. They induce behaviors that undermine both strategic alignment and relationships, essentially adding up to the opposite of real partnership.

This month’s “Beneath the Buzz” debunks two dangerous definitions of partnership, and examines the nature of healthy IT-client relationships.

Dangerous Definition 1: We Share Everything

Some people tell me that partnership means that IT staff and clients are one team, and all team members share everything. They work together on everything, and decide everything jointly.

This “all for one, one for all” notion of partnership sounds lovely. But from a more cynical perspective, it means that each party has the right to meddle in the other’s domain of expertise and accountability. IT staff feel they have a say in business decisions, and clients feel they have the right to tell IT staff how to do their jobs.

Instead of each party contributing their unique competencies, decisions are influenced by people who aren’t fully qualified to make them. This cuts both ways: IT staff may know the business, but they cannot know it as well as those who spend their entire careers studying a given functional area. And clients may know what they want from IT, but they’re not as qualified to manage the delivery of IT as are staff who have dedicated their careers to technology.

Ultimately, meddling in each other’s domains damages team performance. Furthermore, shared accountability is equivalent to no accountability. Without individual accountability, projects drift. Without clear individual authorities, projects mire. And when things go wrong, everybody takes cover under the banner of “teamwork.” The finger-pointing inevitably scars relationships.

The truth is, a great partnership is symbiotic. It takes advantage of people’s different strengths, channeling each to contribute their unique talents to the tasks that most need them. Great partnerships are built on clear, distinct areas of authority which are defined based on distinct competencies and accountabilities. In this way, partnerships create synergies—capabilities greater than the sum of the parts, and certainly far greater than the muddy accountabilities and diluted competencies of the “all for one, one for all” definition of partnership.

Dangerous Definition 2: We’re the IT Team-Members

Another misguided definition of partnership that I’ve heard sounds something like this: “We are partners with our business clients, and hence equals. And since we’re the IT experts in this partnership, we’ll handle that for them.”

Note that this is the exact opposite of customer focus. It says, “We know what’s best for you.” That attitude can only serve to erode client-IT relationships. Furthermore, this definition of partnership is fundamentally disempowering and unproductive.

Imagine the finance department saying to you, “We know money, so we’ll decide your budget and your investments for you.” But of course, you’ll still be held accountable for results. OK, this may sound familiar, but you know it’s untenable. You can’t be held accountable for results when you can’t control the means to get there.

Similarly, clients can’t be held accountable for their bottom lines if they cannot control means like IT.

In fact, this touches on the “Golden Rule” of organizational design: Authority and accountability must always match. If authority and accountability are separated, problems are inevitable: Those with accountability but lacking matching authority are powerless. They cannot perform, and are set up to be scapegoats. They will adopt a helpless “victim” mentality, take no initiatives, and spend a lot of time reading Dilbert and laughing about how futile it is to try to accomplish anything important.

Those with authority but not matching accountability are unconstrained. They can make decisions without bearing the consequences; they can tell others what to do, and blame others when their commands backfire. Without checks and balances, they do as they please, and ultimately become tyrants.

Using the concept of partnership to justify disempowering clients is perverse. It undermines clients’ ability to successfully manage their businesses, and leads to resentment and alienated relationships. Healthy partnerships are based on mutual respect and support, not power games. Partners never disempower one another, since they know that their own success depends on their partner’s success.

Perspective on Partnership Let’s get back to basics: To partner with the business, IT must build great working relationships based on mutual respect, tapping each other’s differential competencies, and in no way disempowering either party.

The most effective partnerships are based on the business-within-a-business paradigm. IT staff treat business clients as customers who have the right to choose what they will and won’t buy from IT. They respect that clients know their businesses better than IT ever will. And even if they think they know the business better than clients, IT staff know that clients must have full authority over their factors of production (including IT) if they’re to be held accountable for their business results.

Conversely, clients respect IT staff’s knowledge of IT. And even if they think they know IT as well as the professionals (after reading that proverbial airline magazine), they know that IT staff must be empowered to run the IT business their own way if they’re to be held accountable for the successful delivery of IT products and services.

Proactive, Not Passive

Treating clients as customers does not force IT into a passive, order-taking role. There are many ways IT staff can be proactive and drive strategic value from IT without disempowering clients. 

As a business within a business, IT can market the strategic value of IT. This is not meant to be self-serving. Marketing is intended to lift clients’ awareness of the possibilities so as to engender more creative use of IT’s products and services. IT account representatives can proactively knock on doors and offer to talk to clients about their challenges and (hopefully) identify strategic opportunities for IT. This is “sales” in the best sense of the profession—not pushing boxes, but partnering with clients to help them solve their problems. The result of consultative selling is clear functional requirements that are directly linked to clients’ perceived needs—strategic opportunities with potentially blockbuster payoffs.

In response to clients’ requirements, IT engineers can proactively offer alternative solutions—as in Chevrolet, Cadillac and Rolls-Royce. In this way, they can make clients aware of better ways to address their needs than the new gizmo advertised in that airline magazine.

IT account representatives can help clients analyze these alternatives in the context of clients’ (not IT’s) values. This isn’t a matter of making a recommendation (back to “we know what’s best for you”). Rather, it’s a consultative process that says, “If speed is most important to you, pick alternative A; but if life-cycle costs are more important, select B.”

Of course, IT engineers can, and must, keep their product lines up to date. Entrepreneurs don’t wait for clients to tell them to study new technologies and vendor products. IT must take the initiative to innovate. Think of this as proactively putting new products on the shelf, available to clients, but only taking them off the shelf (actually deploying them) when clients have agreed to buy them.

In this vein, IT service bureaus must actively maintain and evolve their infrastructure. The word infrastructure means assets owned by IT for the purpose of selling services to clients. AOL doesn’t ask its subscribers’ permission before it buys new servers; it takes responsibility for fielding whatever infrastructure is needed to satisfy clients’ demands for services. IT must build infrastructure based on market needs—that is, input from the client community as a whole—but it unilaterally decides what infrastructure it must buy to satisfy its market.

IT can also be proactive about facilitating corporatewide decisions such as policies, architectural standards and HR policies related to the careers of IT professionals. Of course, these decisions must be made by the community of relevant stakeholders, not unilaterally by corporate IT staff. But IT can put forward the issues and coordinate decisions on behalf of the corporation.

The Essence of Partnership

Wouldn’t it be great if, as on Star Trek, we could do a “mind meld” and merge clients’ knowledge of their business with IT staff’s knowledge of technology!? That might represent the ultimate partnership.

But of course we can’t. Therefore, one party must share all it knows, and the other party must decide.

The model of everybody sharing and everybody deciding (dangerous definition 1) doesn’t work. The model of clients sharing their business knowledge and IT staff making all technology decisions (dangerous definition 2) doesn’t work either.

The essence of great partnerships between IT and business clients is a customer-supplier relationship. In that style of partnership, IT proactively shares all it knows; and then clients are empowered to choose what they buy. If IT staff have done a good job of sharing their knowledge, it’s very likely that clients will come to the same conclusions as IT staff. If clients do select an alternative other than the one IT would recommend, perhaps they know something about their business that IT staff don’t know, or perhaps they’re applying their own values and putting business pragmatics ahead of technical elegance.

Of course, with authority comes accountability. Clients are fully accountable for their choices—for justifying the expenditure, for paying full life-cycle costs and for realizing business results. And IT is fully accountable for the successful delivery of IT products and services at competitive costs.

In this style of partnership, both IT and clients are empowered to run their respective businesses. Each contributes based on their respective competencies. Relationships are clean, mutually respectful and cordial. The result: both strategic alignment and great relationships.

If CIOs are serious about partnering with the business, implementing the business-within-a-business paradigm is foundational.

Dean Meyer helps IT leadership teams design high-performance organizations. Author of six books, numerous monographs, columns and articles, he brings innovative systematic approaches to what others consider the “soft” side of leadership. Contact him at or visit his website for information that can help you implement these ideas, or with suggestions for other buzzwords to analyze in future columns.