TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Beware the Liaison: Q&A with Jill Dyché

Is acting as a liaison between IT and business users a good idea? Jill offers three conditions before you agree to serve in such a position

I've received many very kind notes of encouragement since my inaugural "Q&A with Jill Dyché" column. Of course, this column might change all that. Why? Because I'm going to take on one of the analytics industry's sacred cows: the role of the liaison.

A new reader and fan -- though probably not for long -- "Middleman" wants to be the tie that binds the business and IT at his company. But Middleman might want to think twice.

Dear Jill:

I attended your TDWI class "BI from Both Sides" a few years ago at the TDWI conference in Las Vegas. I particularly appreciated your discussion of alternate organizational models, but I was surprised you didn't spend more time discussing the importance of liaisons.

I work for an insurance company and we have the usual politics between business and IT. It's very clear to me that each side pretends to understand what the other side needs, but there's very little collaboration between the parties.

I currently work in IT but came over from the business side. I'm seriously considering proposing myself as a business relationship manager, translating requirements between business users and IT personnel. At present no such role exists here. Your thoughts on creating it?

--Middleman in Minnesota

Middleman, first, allow me to celebrate your creativity. Too few people think outside their incumbent organizational structures -- by which I mean "the box." This is a testament to your integrity as an employee wanting to Do the Right Thing for his employer. If we were eating lunch together I would give you my pudding cup.

The idea of a liaison is as a universal translator that reads the brain waves of one party and explains the intent to the other party, often going back and forth until there's consensus.

In other words, are you nuts? Universal translators are still six and a half years away! The entire idea is outlandish!

The trouble with liaisons is that they are intermediaries, and I can already tell you that your company already has too many of them. Picture someone sitting between two people, turning to one to explain what the other says, and then back again. The two people could be trying to converse on their own, even using hand signals and stick figures to convey their points. The intermediary adds time and often confusion. Moreover, once the conversation ends, he takes credit for making the whole thing work.

Now I know it's not your intent to lift your leg on every interaction between business and IT. I suspect your professional bona fides include perspectives and experiences that could benefit both sides. Before you hurl that pudding cup in my direction, let me offer some suggestions for how to make this work.

The liaison role can actually be effective if it follows these three rules:

1. The liaison must have the organizational authority to function in the role. That is, he needs to be a trusted broker between the business organizations and IT teams. He must have earned the right to engage both parties, separately and together. This often means having played a key role in a successful project or having held a senior position on one side or another (but preferably both).

2. The liaison should be seen as delivering something. Show me someone who attends meetings and tries to bring people to consensus and I'll show you someone who sits alone at lunch. Without pudding.

3. The liaison can't be called a liaison. The very word "liaison" in your title will cause people to delete your emailed meeting invitations and quietly close their office doors when they hear you approaching. Better to be a data scientist, analytics director, or business sponsor and embrace that title.

If you follow these three rules, you'll likely have people asking you to help facilitate conversations, explain requirements, map objectives to projects, interview new hires, and other work that normal intermediaries only talk about.

Now it's your turn! Email me a question about analytics programs, data management, organizational issues, or culture at Jill@upside.com. If we choose your question, you'll be put on a waiting list to win a universal translator, complete with 32 GB of additional memory.

About the Author

Jill Dyché has advised clients and executive teams on their analytics and data programs for as long as she can remember. Longer, in fact. She’s the author of four books on the business value of technology and regularly talks to teams about what keeps them up at night. Ambivalent about analytics? Maddened by management? Constricted by your culture? Check out Jill’s Q&A column, Q&A with Jill Dyché, here.

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