In the tech movie spoof Office Space, one employee trying to save his job explains to efficiency experts that "engineers are not good at dealing with customers".
An increasing number of CIOs recognize that, like the engineers of the movie's soulless corporation Initech, some of their companies' IT staffers aren't very good at dealing with customers either. To address the problem, they've created positions with titles such as business relationship manager or customer relationship manager to help them relate to internal customers.
The people holding these jobs are charged with changing the perception of IT from that of a passive dispenser of requested services to a proactive provider of business value. But their success has been as mixed as the visions of the CIOs who employ them. Here are three different approaches.
Walk first; run later
After consolidating the IT infrastructure of 25 executive agencies in 2006, the state of North Carolina's Office of Information Technology Services surveyed state workers and discovered that they thought communication between the agencies and IT was poor. State CIO George Bakolia responded by creating a business relationship management (BRM) unit to improve communication and foster trust.
Most new processes in state government have a strong IT component, but IT often isn't consulted early enough for maximum effectiveness, says Wendy Kuhn, director of BRM. "By establishing this relationship of trust, we're hoping to change that," she says.
The businesspeople want to have a single, responsive point of contact in IT, Bakolia says. So he looks for "excellent communicators who can relate to customers and articulate to the techies in IT what the business really needs".
With that emphasis on communication, three of the four people who have been hired as relationship managers do not have IT backgrounds.
Kuhn says that the group will gradually transition from just reacting to service issues to studying the IT needs of internal customers and recommending changes. Bakolia agrees. "Our longer-term goal is to have them work on strategic issues," he says, "but no customer is going to allow this business liaison to intervene on business re-engineering before we've established trust."
Brian Layh, one of the relationship managers, says being an advocate for business customers within IT can be challenging because he needs to work "both sides of the fence", and that includes pointing out areas where IT can improve.
Layh looks forward to providing strategic advice to agency heads. "It's not hard for me to see new ways that technology could help agencies meet their business goals," he says. "We just need the relationship to mature enough where we can pursue that."
When John Shea became CIO at Eaton Vance Management in Boston a year ago, he inherited an IT organization that included six internal customer relationship managers. The positions had been created to deal with service problems. "We had a bad reputation as an IT group," recalls Frank Wertz, director of IT client management. "The CRMs were added in 1999 because we wanted to calm the noise down."
At first, the CRMs responded to tactical needs, says Wertz, who worked as one before being chosen to lead the group. He recalls helping executives from a newly acquired line of business navigate the initial shock of integrating their systems. "If they had tried to solve that by working with project managers and application developers on their own," he says, "the communications would have broken down fast."
Today, each of the CRMs covers five or six related business units at the investment management firm so they can develop expertise in areas such as finance, investment and equity, Shea says. The CRMs meet with business leaders to discuss their strategic project needs, and then IT's project management office prioritizes those requests.
Some of the CRMs were recruited from within Eaton Vance's IT department; others were originally consultants hired to assist on IT projects. Shea says that finding people with the right mix of skills has been difficult.
"They have to be client advocates, and that is a different skill set than most IT people have," he notes. "They have to know the business and be able to prioritize that unit's IT needs."
Shea sees the customer relationship manager role as part of a larger effort to break down barriers between business and IT, but he acknowledges that there are still challenges to work through. For example, some business line executives consider the customer relationship manager an extra layer of bureaucracy, and some CRMs have effective relationships with a few of their executive partners and not with others, he says.
One exasperating problem is that because of the CRMs' tactical origins, business groups still sometimes treat them as a help desk. "We're struggling to maintain the strategic level rather than the tactical level," Shea says.
He is quick to admit that the customer relationship manager role is a work in progress. "We've created this structure, and it's not perfect right now," he says, "but we are working on making it better."
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