How to Structure and Mature the Business/IT Relationship

By Adam Nelson

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Managing the relationship between an organization’s business units and IT is a strategic initiative that can support corporate objectives, bolster program planning, help set implementation expectations, and improve operational score cards ... or, it can become a burden and a detriment to open lines of communication.

A liaison model should take into account several company parameters, including sponsorship, size, governance, and collaboration levels, and be tailored to an organization’s culture and design. An effective communication program should be designed to fit within the current environment and have a plan to mature into a model that supports the future state of an organization if it is going to be sustainable.

A well operated and sponsored program has direct benefits including faster time to market, lower overall cost, fewer defects and misinterpreted expectations, and a more collaborative working style that raises the likelihood of success for cross-functional programs and organizational transformation.


Stakeholder involvement is typically a catalyst to a program's success or failure and this is no different with a liaison model. The liaison team should be led by an executive team member, someone with enterprise visibility and the ability to interact with senior management. With this level of sponsorship, strategic initiative support is encouraged and business unit conflicts are mitigated.

Depending on the executive sponsor, the group will probably have an affinity to that leader’s goals. If the group is expected to review spending habits, reporting to the CFO would be an advantage; if the technology portfolio is in need of support, the CIO would be an excellent sponsor. Ideally, the liaison model would be part of a more robust governance effort, as the team’s objectives are invariably linked to corporate improvement initiatives, including balanced scorecard, enterprise risk management, governance and compliance, and process improvement. A model that reports to a chief administration officer or corporate strategic planning will help the group evolve beyond business/IT communication and provide value for multiple stakeholders.

Business/IT communication can be implemented by taking into account team member roles and team structure. Herein, three roles are defined―communicator/contributor, facilitator/educator, and planner/improver―along with three structures (individual, pool, and center of excellence) to provide a framework for initiating and maturing a liaison team.

Team Roles

The role a liaison team plays depends on not only the current state, but what the existing challenges are. Understanding the pain points of the relationship will guide the selection of the appropriate style.

Communicator/contributor – This role tends to be most effective where the relationship is strained or where there is a "super-hero" environment. The liaison would focus on opening the lines of communication and rebuilding trust. With a superhero-oriented IT department, business users must learn to engage the entire department and not to call their IT buddy directly. IT must also respond efficiently. The communicator liaison becomes the bridge between the business and IT. They must be aware of the players, the projects, the insiders, and contribute to planning so that groups feel they have an advocate.

A communicator/contributor should be open and trustworthy with a high emotional intelligence to help diffuse tense situations where blame might traditionally be freely assigned. The liaison might be challenged to redefine the relationships. With patience and several trust building conversations, the communicator will begin to participate in planning and delivery and become the advocate for different groups and perspectives.

The liaison is cautioned in aligning too closely with newly opened relationships as group-think might ensue. Liaisons should also be careful not to provide all the initial suggestions or answers as they will not be effective if viewed as the single point of contact and only trusted resource.

Facilitator/educator – This role is characterized by knowledge of the organization’s business divisions, plans, priorities, and technology processes, where the business and IT know each other and have a sense of what each group is attempting to accomplish.

As companies grow, small groups tend to form, frequently making decisions that cause unknown challenges for other business units and IT. A liaison with process framework experience can facilitate a team through methodology use and enhance understanding when decisions could affect other areas.

The facilitator role should have relationships across company levels and be respected to suggest improvement (even allowing teams to work around immature processes which would be a detriment to progress). The facilitator/educator liaison will be in a position to identify productivity detractors and should drive improvement, enabling teams to learn how to leverage flexible and valuable processes.

Planner/improver – Most effective with a well communicating business/IT team, the planner/improver liaison will assist in prioritizing project portfolios so, as business units refine their strategy, funding, or operations, IT does not bear the full burden of the modifications. Typically, there are several programs at the top of every group's list resulting in multiple No.1 initiatives. IT might find itself working on 10 or 20 No.1 priority projects, leading to high failure rates; especially in a down market when costs and staff are being cut and projects are running lean.

The liaison should have intimate knowledge of business units, strategic corporate plans, and participate in IT operation strategy. Business units and IT must want to complete the projects and proactively identify process areas to improve and align with corporate needs, such as work load, reduced budget, or less staff. The liaison should be asking (at every work session) if process will support the business demands and, if not, how will the business participate in its modification so IT can deliver to expectations. As progress is made, the liaison will take on a program improvement role to track both projects and improvements and hold the business and IT accountable.

Depending on where a company started, the liaison role should be allowed to mature to support career development and mitigate attrition. Organizations should also select liaison candidates carefully. A good communicator may not have a strategic planning background and an educator who naturally provides answers may not understand that sometimes you have to let others solve the riddles.

The business/IT relationship should be managed with an understanding that competing goals may have to be adjusted and expectations re-aligned based on allocated scope, time, and budget. Liaisons should be highly adaptable.

Team Structure

A liaison initiative should be viewed as an investment in productivity and when recruiting a team, understanding the roles will help determine effectiveness based on the current working environment. The structure however should take into account organizational culture and size to enable efficiency and determine fit.

Individual liaison - Once business and IT divisions grow to 100 people each, there is a need for more formal process and project management discipline. Depending on the maturity and honesty of communication, planning, and delivery, an individual liaison can enhance the relationship.

For an organization with 500 in IT, a liaison model is well warranted and the individual model can be effective where business units have their own liaison and receive information and planning assistance while giving IT more visibility into business plans and priorities. At this size, liaisons should have a robust understanding of IT and can operate as an effective communicator and educator in a self-reliant fashion.

The risk is an individual becoming a communication bottleneck or becoming more of a project manager instead of a communicator, facilitator or planner.

Resource support pool - As IT grows beyond 500 with a business over 5,000, architecture, application portfolio, business process, marketing, and customer relationship complexity grows. Liaisons will have a larger scope to manage, will interact with a broader user group, and interact with senior executives. Effectiveness can be supported by an identified pool of resources across the business and IT operational lifecycle, including operations, architecture, development, testing, infrastructure, process, and finance.

Liaisons would also meet regularly to compare and share information, enhancing their effectiveness and assisting in supporting strategic planning as cross functional improvements can be identified. Proper support resource identification will organize communication and mitigate excluding knowledgeable employees, regardless of organizational chart status. A liaison support pool helps succession planning, provides increased job satisfaction, and builds internal networks―a critical component to business alignment that enables efficiencies and productivity gains.

Center of excellence - Beyond a certain size or organizational complexity, part-time resources become ineffective and a center of excellence (CoE) structure will allow cost effective maturity. A liaison CoE requires inward and outward focus, being challenged to become a leader in strategic planning and effective in the implementation of organizational goals. The CoE will have liaisons along with dedicated technologists, analysts, process engineers, and, if strategic planning is aligned, governance, risk management and financial analysts. Enterprise wide improvements are more effectively driven and the risk of partial information or missed expectations highly mitigated because of the dedicated team.

Your appetite for risk should dictate the preferred model. With a well selected core team for a liaison CoE, strategic planning, enterprise risk management, governance, process, and portfolio planning can all be effectively managed and effect positive influence across a global organization to drive competitive advantage.


The liaison relationship is assuredly an investment and will fail when initiated either part-time, with no support, or staffed with an inexperienced team. If done right, the resulting collaborative working environment will be a welcome addition to any organization’s strategy. Selecting and maturing the most effective model is dependent on an organization’s current state and transformation strategy, with liaison role and structure being two constructs to consider.

Adam Nelson is director of Global Client Management at Keane Inc., an IT services firm. Adam has initiated and led, or advised, business/IT liaison teams across retail, healthcare, government, and financial service industries with organizations up to 10,000 and IT divisions from 700 to 2,500 people.