Turning Your BRMs into Digital Business Leaders

The relentless advance of technology is steadily turning science fiction into science fact. While we can all look forward to a future of driverless cars, communicating watches, 3D goggles, smart cities and a ubiquitous internet of things, it is the rise of machine intelligence that underlies all of these developments. Technology’s ever-improving ability to sense, see, speak, listen, identify, track, control, analyze, recommend, decide and create is transforming not just how businesses operate and innovate, but how we all live and work. Many forms of machine intelligence are now reaching their tipping point.

Turning Your BRMs into Digital Business Leaders

As shown in the figure below, smart technology services mirror just about everything that businesses do. Where firms once had to build and secure their own computing, networking, messaging and application systems, these functions are now available as easy-to-use, on-demand utilities. More importantly, the virtual world is rapidly rising up the value chain – GPS/maps, cameras/sensors, payment technologies, facial recognition, expert systems, augmented/virtual reality, algorithmic operations, Klout scores and many other innovations. In our research, we have identified over 100 key cross-industry technologies, which we have collectively dubbed the Matrix, with a deliberate nod to
the iconic 1999 movie.

Figure 1 - The ‘Matrix’ is redefining how firms operate and innovate

Figure 1 - The ‘Matrix’ is redefining how firms operate and innovate

No organization can hope to match the power of the Matrix by itself, which is why in recent years we have been advising companies to re-imagine themselves from the outside-in. Unless firms become skilled in both tracking and leveraging often-unpredictable technology advances, as well as working with new and innovative business partners, they will find themselves vulnerable to new, born-digital rivals. Today, every industry sector has its own set of well-funded and potentially disruptive start-ups, built to ride the technology curve.

This unstoppable tide is altering the very nature of work. Senior executives increasingly need to think digital first, while professionals and employees at every level must learn new skills and embrace new ways of working. Those individuals who enthusiastically engage with this future will enjoy exciting career opportunities, but those who ignore or resist it will be increasingly (and often painfully) marginalized. We see these patterns in many large organizations today.

But nowhere is the impact of the Matrix greater than on the Enterprise IT function. The IT organization has always been among the most inside-out parts of the firm, because developing and managing complex internal information systems has required (and still requires) a deep and sustained focus on the detailed nature of individual company operations and processes. However, to ensure their relevance in a Matrix-driven future, internally-focused Enterprise IT professionals must become more than just reliable internal business partners; they must emerge as externally-engaged Digital Business Leaders (DBLs). Making this transition is among the most important challenges facing Enterprise IT today.

From IT Service Management to Digital Business Leadership

Words and history matter. Over the years, as confidence in Enterprise IT’s ability to deliver business value diminished, two stereotypes took hold: that IT people didn’t speak a language that the rest of the organization could understand, and that employees didn’t appreciate the possibilities, limitations and realities of information technology. These duelling complaints stemmed from a litany of all-too-familiar experiences – cost overruns, disappointing functionality, employee resistance, mutual distrust, and sometimes outright project failure.

In response, many IT organizations sought to better align IT services with the rest of the firm. As part of this effort, Business Relationship Managers (BRMs) were often brought in to help Enterprise IT to partner more effectively with the overall organization. Successful BRMs tend to have strong communication, consulting and negotiating skills, as well as the personal power (and management backing) needed to sustain credibility, empathy and trust even while coping with difficult situations.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of these BRMs was often undermined by a deeply entrenched us versus them IT Services mindset. This mental model led many Enterprise IT groups into an endless struggle to better align itself with ‘the business’ (what does this make IT – the non- business?) Given these attitudes, many BRMs faced an uphill climb, and had to work hard to earn the trust of their non-IT colleagues.

To improve this situation, in 2013, the Business Relationship Management Institute (BRMI) was formed, with a mission to support individuals and organizations seeking to enhance their BRM skills and initiatives. From its outset, BRMI has sought to define Enterprise IT’s role as more than just traditional IT service management, while positioning the BRM as a strategic partner within the firm, equipped with the skills and mandate to help the organization evolve and embrace its digital future. As the first and leading global organization for BRMs, BRMI has also developed a formal professional development and certification programme to promote excellence and sustain a relentless focus on business value.

Similarly, the LEF has worked successfully with dozens of organizations over the years to raise the game of their BRM functions, using a case study and experiential approach. In recognition of these parallel agendas, in 2014, the LEF and the BRMI launched an important partnership, and we continue to work together closely to further our agendas. We thank BRMI for its valuable contribution to this paper.

Figure 2 - To keep pace, firms need digital leadership, not just IT management

Figure 2 - To keep pace, firms need digital leadership, not just IT management

Looking ahead, both LEF and BRMI recognize that although the need for effective internal partnering remains essential, it is no longer sufficient. As suggested by the figure above, information technology now touches upon just about every aspect of the modern organization. Business and IT have essentially converged; they are now inseparable and co-evolving. This means that companies need to re-imagine themselves in a digital Matrix context, both externally – in terms of their industry, competition, ecosystem and products/services – and internally – in terms of their organizational models, job functions and skills. They must also gauge the pace of these changes.

Few organizations can effectively and safely meet such challenges without the experience and expertise of their internal IT organizations. There is just too much misleading market hype, and too many technological uncertainties, pitfalls and dead ends for the average business person to navigate on his or her own. Those IT professionals who can successfully identify, assess, sell and integrate today’s Matrix capabilities are well positioned to become important Digital Business Leaders within their firms.

This type of language evolution happens regularly in the technology industry. For example, while the words internet, web, cloud (and now, the Matrix) can be used interchangeably, the emergence of each term corresponded to a major new phase of technology innovation. Similarly, our use of DBL doesn’t mean that traditional BRM job titles will necessarily change or that the term BRM will fade away. But what it does mean is that the expanding digital mission of the firm is now pushing the BRM role beyond that of the Strategic Partner Level of Maturity toward true digital leadership. The differences between traditional BRM and emerging DBL are contrasted further in the figure below.

Figure 3 - Digital leadership builds on top of the traditional BRM function

Figure 3 - Digital leadership builds on top of the traditional BRM function

Our Janus model

Janus was a mythical Roman god, believed to be capable of seeing equally clearly into the past and future. We have long believed that the two-headed image shown in the figure above is an excellent metaphor for the perennial challenges faced by Enterprise IT. On the one hand, much of what IT does on a day-to-day basis is focused on sustaining and rationalizing the legacy systems of the past. But, of course, the IT industry is fundamentally about the future, and its ever-expanding possibilities. The most successful Enterprise IT organizations are those that have their legacies well enough under control that they have the bandwidth, budgets and trust needed to embrace an ever-richer digital future.

We think the Janus metaphor applies equally well to the distinction between IT-service- minded Business Relationship Managers and true Digital Business Leaders. As we have discussed, traditional BRM skills remain essential and are still too scarce in many firms. New generations of effective BRMs will be needed for the foreseeable future, and our BRM workshops remain in high demand.

But the skills required for the right side of the Janus are even scarcer. DBLs must develop an outside-in and hands-on sense of how the Matrix can be used to make their firms more successful. We put particular emphasis on the need for double-deep know-how – the ability to apply specific technological skills to actual job/market requirements and opportunities. DBLs also tend to lead by showing and doing, not just by advising and consulting. For example, prototyping and demonstrating the employee or process of the future can help your firm develop a shared organizational vision. Unfortunately, many Enterprise IT organizations are not looked to for this type of hands-on business innovation, and unless this changes, digital leadership will migrate to other parts of the firm.

Figure 4 - BRM and DBL require all of Enterprise IT’s ‘4P’ Roles

Figure 4 - BRM and DBL require all of Enterprise IT’s ‘4P’ Roles

A framework for digital business leadership

How can traditional IT organizations better position themselves for the exciting digital changes that lie ahead? For many years, we have used various implementations of the framework above to depict the main roles that Enterprise IT can play within an organization, and we believe that this model can also help with our BRM and DBL analysis.

Within this 4P framework, IT can add value in two main ways – by either adopting technology better than its competitors, or by better applying it to actual company/industry challenges.
Crossing these two axes helps us identify the following four Enterprise IT roles:

  • Providers efficiently supply the systems and capabilities that the firm requires, with the emphasis on reliability, efficiency and compliance
  • Partners work like consultants to the firm, advising/directing the use of IT to support the business change agenda. The emphasis is on application/process modernization and
  • Promoters serve as technology evangelists, advocating how new technologies can improve the firm’s speed, agility, productivity and innovation advantage
  • Peers work at the CXO-level to shape the digital strategy and value proposition of the firm, while engaging in major initiatives such as smart products, M&A and IP development/protection

Although most IT organizations at least occasionally contribute in all four of these areas, they tend to have a primary identity in one of the four quadrants, especially in terms of how they are perceived by the rest of the organization. In virtually all cases, rock-solid fulfilment of the Provider role is a prerequisite for pursuing any of the other three possibilities.

The figure also depicts the BRM/DBL challenge in terms of these 4P roles. In this view, IT-service-minded BRMs are mostly focused on the lower half of the figure, especially the Partner quadrant. Just about every IT organization begins as a Provider, but over time most seek to become true business partners inside their firms. Both the Provider and Partner roles remain vital and must continually evolve. For example, Providers must master today’s cloud computing and SaaS offerings, while Partners must work effectively with customers, suppliers and the wider business ecosystem.

In contrast, Digital Business Leadership is primarily focused on the upper half (Promoter/Peer) of the framework. This is especially true in today’s Matrix-driven marketplace, where new capabilities, business models and disruptive possibilities are proliferating, and companies need to respond effectively to rapidly changing external developments. It’s a very different mission from Enterprise IT’s Provider/Partner heritage, requiring different skills and culture.

How the LEF can help

The Leading Edge Forum is committed to helping companies with both their traditional BRM and emerging DBL requirements, with our emphasis increasingly on the latter. As indicated by the bold lettering in the figure, we currently have seven main advisory offerings that help clients:

  1. Get the BRM fundamentals right. Our BRM education programmes are aimed at raising the overall game of Enterprise IT staff, using an experience- and case- based methodology to help develop the communication, negotiation and consulting skills that IT professionals need to work as powerful and effective business partners. Having conducted some 30 intensive group sessions in recent years, we have identified proven steps to more effective business/IT partnerships. This group workshop approach is now being deployed to help IT staff, and especially BRMs, to become ‘more digital’.
  2. Gain hands-on Xperience. Many consumer and internet of things (IoT) technologies need to be experienced to be fully appreciated. However, most companies do not have an effective process for getting new technologies into the hands of the right employees. Our mobile Xperience Lab brings the latest cameras, sensors, wearables and virtual/augmented reality technologies on-site, and then applies them to particular company challenges, such as our recent effort to help a utility firm imagine and demonstrate the field engineer of the future. Our annual LEF Study Tour (this year on machine intelligence) also emphasizes hands-on experience.
  3. Work like a start-up. Modern software tools and techniques can often lead to order-of-magnitude productivity improvements. But the use of such approaches within many traditional IT organizations remains surprisingly low. Our Start-up Culture Lab demonstrates the latest software development concepts, with the emphasis on application integration, advanced user interfaces, mobile apps and rapid prototyping. For example, we have shown a number of clients how to get greater value from their SAP systems by providing a much more intuitive and graphical user interface.
  4. Be socially ready. For whatever reasons, many IT professionals (as well as many senior executives) are neither comfortable with, nor experienced in, modern social media. Our Social Readiness training helps individuals and/or groups get over the hump so that they can both effectively engage with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and look more professional online. We can take any number of individuals – from a single executive to several hundred people – through such training.
  5. Improve your situational awareness. Technology tends to evolve in a pattern – from genesis to customization, to productization and eventual commodity/utility status. Our Value Chain Mapping (VCM) workshops leverage this pattern to provide a unique and powerful methodology for visualizing and anticipating where your organization is today and where it needs to be. Many large corporate and government clients are now using VCM to improve their situational awareness for a variety of strategic, operational and competitive analysis purposes.
  6. Disrupt, and not be disrupted. While some industries have been much more disrupted by IT than others, every sector has its own disruption story. Our Disruption research is aimed at helping senior executives see how the Matrix is changing the way that industries operate and innovate, with a special emphasis on the shift from inside-out to outside-in dynamics. We have identified roughly 100 core Matrix capabilities and digital ‘plays’ that firms can now leverage. These will be the basis for a set of DBL playing cards, similar to our long-popular BRM card deck.
  7. Tell your digital story. Most companies have a clear business strategy, and most also have a formal IT strategy. But relatively few firms (and even fewer IT departments) have a compelling digital business narrative that makes sense both inside and outside of their organization. In recent years, we have helped a number of firms tell their digital story more effectively by taking an outside-in perspective and using a combination of LEF and company-specific language.

All of these services should be viewed as inter-related components that can be mixed and matched according to client need. Additionally, while the LEF is always available to work with clients in these areas, we also see them as excellent opportunities for the BRMs/DBLs of the future to personally create more value, and thus we encourage would-be digital leaders to familiarize themselves with these and/or similar techniques. We are now helping a number of our clients become self-sufficient in several of the advisory areas above so that they can be more impactful digital leaders within their organizations.

Of course, no one person can be expected to be skilled in all of these areas, but as communities of digital leaders emerge, developing a diverse range of leadership skills across the firm becomes a much more realistic goal. Taken together, these seven advisory/ consulting/demonstration services provide a good sense of the types of things successful BRM/DBLs can do for their organizations. We recommend that firms wishing to develop new or enhanced BRM capabilities to better support their digital agenda should follow this general path, while seeking certification of their BRMs through the BRMI to ensure solid individual foundations.

Learning must pervade the organization

Technology will continue to evolve in important and unpredictable ways. Change is now happening on so many business, technological, political, societal, environmental and global fronts that most long-term forecasts are just guesses or extrapolations. In this environment, the best that firms can do is to be as ready as possible for whatever lies ahead. As always, organizational readiness is grounded in the firm’s ability to sense, respond and adapt – all of which require ongoing organizational leadership and learning. This is the ambiguous and fast-moving realm in which digital business leaders must thrive.

Figure 5 - But Enterprise IT is just a part of your firm’s Digital IQ

Figure 5 - But Enterprise IT is just a part of your firm’s Digital IQ

In 2015, the theme of our UK Executive Forum was Raising Your Organization’s Digital IQ, which will also be the theme of our 2016 US Executive Forum in May. We chose to emphasize the need for learning because it is a common requirement across the four digital leadership dimensions shown in the figure above. While this paper has focused on the role of Enterprise IT, technology professionals cannot create the digital firm of the future on their own. Effective digital strategy and leadership also requires:

  • Senior executives (and their Boards of Directors) who believe that IT matters, and that it is their job to take responsibility for the success of major digital initiatives.
  • Professionals and employees at all levels who embrace the fact that learning to use technology is part of their job, and that they should strive to become double- deep, mastering both their individual job function and the technologies relevant to that function.
  • Ecosystem partners – be they customers, suppliers or other stakeholders – who are committed to being digital leaders in their respective areas.
    During 2016, we will develop an overall assessment programme whereby companies can measure their firm’s Digital IQ, at both an organizational and individual employee level.

IT should strive for a digital leadership position

While Enterprise IT cannot control what other parts of the firm do and/or believe, it can certainly influence all three of the above constituencies. By developing and mobilizing an elite cadre of Digital Business Leaders, IT organizations can establish and lead a community (ideally a critical mass) of like-minded digital enthusiasts across the firm. Today, just about every organization needs a place for outside-in thinking as well as digital innovation, experimentation, learning and developing a vision of the future. Enterprise IT should be at the centre of these initiatives, as both a trusted partner and state-of-the-art practitioner. These priorities and the related C-Level support will be the future focus of our own digital leadership work as well as our partnership with the BRMI.

Of course, no one can say how the vast global Matrix will evolve over the coming years. But some firms are clearly developing and sustaining a much higher Digital IQ than others, and this readiness advantage should serve them well through the many digital challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. For those Enterprise IT professionals who can grow from Relationship Managers into true Digital Leaders, the possibilities have never been greater. We are in the early stages of the Matrix and the machine intelligence era, but this is where the next generation of business leaders will first emerge.


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