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Q&A: Building a Business/IT Partnership

Projects require business expertise and technical knowledge, but it's often difficult to build partnerships between business users and IT. We explore the role of individuals in the process and best practices for success.

[Editor's note: Maureen Clarry and Lorna Rickard are conducting the session Power, Politics, and Partnership: Collaborating for Business-Driven BI at the TDWI World Conference in Boston (October 20-25, 2013). In this conversation, we discuss partnerships -- why they are difficult to build, the role of individual contributors in creating them, and best practices for creating them.]

BI This Week: Business-Driven BI -- Building a Business/IT Partnership is the theme for the Boston TDWI conference. Why is the business/IT partnership so important for business driven BI?

Maureen Clarry: Successful business intelligence initiatives require business expertise and technical knowledge. It is essential for IT and business to collaborate, and in many organizations, that is one of the most difficult chasms to cross.

How do you define partnership?

Lorna Rickard: Partnership is a relationship in which we are jointly committed to the success of whatever endeavor, process, or project we are engaged in. Even if we're involved in a knock-down, drag-out negotiation, the question would still be, "Are we jointly committed to success?" In business intelligence initiatives, the key question becomes whether IT and the business unit(s) are jointly committed to success (as success is jointly defined by them) or if they stand in their own corners pointing fingers at each other.

Why is it so difficult for some organizations to build partnerships?

Lorna Rickard: Because partnership is about relationships, there are many factors that can impact those relationships, including tangible factors such as compensation, reward and recognition systems, and even the physical layout of office space. These aspects vary between companies. What we explore in our workshop is the powerful, intangible forces that are present in all organizations; the underlying dynamics inherent in hierarchical structures. With an understanding of these patterns, new possibilities for creating a partnership become apparent and the tangible factors can be managed and adjusted from a more strategic perspective.

One of the key patterns that typically plays out is the relationship between "provider" and "customer" which is a dynamic role based on who is providing a service, deliverable, requirement, input, etc. and who is receiving/consuming the service, input, etc. The typical pattern is for a "customer" to say "Jump!" and the "provider" asks, "How high?" This is not a joint commitment to success but rather a reaction to the patterns that play out in organizations. There needs to be a more conscious approach to the commitments and expectations that partners put on each other. In the case of BI initiatives, it may mean a more realistic negotiation of what to expect, when to expect it, and the amount of involvement that business and IT resources invest.

What's the role of leadership in creating partnerships in their organization?

Maureen Clarry: The role of leadership in creating partnerships has several components. First, leaders need to create responsibility in the organization. There is a tendency when leaders are living with the complexity of their role to become overwhelmed and burdened. With all the important things coming at them, they might try to do too much, work too much, or hold on to too much. It may seem obvious, but in the moment, it is easy to take on too much responsibility for the outcomes. There are strategies to help that situation which include things such as delegation, creating a clear vision, building strong teams, and strengthening the "middle" of the organization. Our course helps people to see those situations and try different strategies that might help them deal with the overload.

Second, leaders need to create an environment of empowerment and accountability. That environment needs to promote the benefits of taking risks, as well as stepping up and taking ownership of issues. While it is true that people ultimately need to empower themselves, that doesn't let leadership off the hook. Leaders still need to create an environment that makes it easier for people to take responsibility.

Third, leaders need to insist upon horizontal partnerships. That means creating an environment where there is collaboration between silos, which is not to imply that leaders need to get involved in all the issues that are impeding partnerships. Rather, it means a conscious effort to create a space where people are rewarded for working across organizational boundaries and are not incented to work in a vertical vacuum.

In the BI environment, this means that collaboration between IT and business units starts at the top. It also means creating a culture where people are rewarded for working together collaboratively to create joint responsibility for success. Though it is a common refrain that "customer satisfaction" is a number one priority, if there are unreasonable expectations and demands that cannot be accomplished, the definition of joint success needs to be realistically evaluated to determine what can be accomplished with the resources available from both business and IT.

What is the role of individual contributors in creating partnerships in their organization?

Lorna Rickard: Individual contributors are the engine of any organization. They do the direct work of the organization, making its products or rendering its services. They are closest to the customer. Despite their critical role, they often are not given the resources they need to maximize their efficacy and therefore their contribution. In the face of this, how can individual contributors create partnership? The most critical change that needs to happen is internal to the individual. I'm sure we've all heard the familiar refrain, "Don't ask me; I just work here." This comment belies an attitude of non-accountability -- "I'm not responsible for -- and can't change -- what goes on around here."

It is impossible to be both "jointly committed to success" and non-accountable. Individual contributors need to be willing to shift their perspective from seeing the problem conditions around them as a complaint (something they can only whine about) to seeing them as a potential project -- something they could take on. For any problem, they could ask themselves, "What is my part in the perpetuation of this problem?" "To what degree does it continue because of things I do or don't do?" and "How can I become central to making to go away?"

This, of course, doesn't oblige individual contributors to endeavor to solve every problem. The key shift here is the recognition that they could be central if they chose to be. This recognition can lead to behavior that improves partnership -- asking questions, dealing in solutions not just problems, not engaging in gossip, etc. The choice to remain passive and unaccountable or to go for partnership is one each of us must make.

In the BI environment, this means that both business units and IT need to reach across the aisle. There needs to be candid conversation about what is critical and necessary from a business perspective and what is required and possible from an IT perspective.

What are some of the "best practices" for creating better partnerships in organizations?

Maureen Clarry: It's a little out of context without the benefit of the workshop experience, but in summary:

Customers (business users) need to get more involved by understanding how things work and negotiating clear requirements and standards. A partnership is not possible if customers want to do a "drive-by" approach, then point fingers at IT when their expectations are not met.

Providers (IT) need to solicit more involvement from their customers and stop committing to unrealistic expectations. They need to better understand how the information is going to be used so they can help their customers prioritize and then deliver on what is promised.

How will your course Power, Politics, and Partnership: Collaborating for Business-Driven BI help attendees create better partnerships in their organizations?

Maureen Clarry: This course is not an intellectual lecture about how to create partnership. Rather, it gives participants an opportunity to experience a shared case study and learn about the patterns that get in the way of partnership. Based on that, strategies are shared that people can use to improve partnership in their specific situation. Besides that, it's a fun way to start the conference week and meet other people!

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