IT departments are no longer order-takers, so naturally being "partners in the business" sounds great. But what does that really mean?
"Partners in the business." Of course, every CIO likes the ring of that. The phrase evokes images of strategic relevance and great relationships with clients. In fact, some interpretations of partnership are insidious. They induce behaviours that undermine both strategic alignment and relationships, essentially adding up to the opposite of real partnership.
Dangerous Definition 1: We Share Everything
Some people tell me that partnership means that IT staff and clients are one team, and all team members share everything. They work together on everything, and decide everything jointly.
This "all for one, one for all" notion of partnership sounds lovely. But from a more cynical perspective, it means that each party has the right to meddle in the other's domain of expertise and accountability. IT staff feel they have a say in business decisions, and clients feel they have the right to tell IT staff how to do their jobs.
Instead of each party contributing their unique competencies, decisions are influenced by people who aren't fully qualified to make them. This cuts both ways: IT staff may know the business, but they cannot know it as well as those who spend their entire careers studying a given functional area. And clients may know what they want from IT, but they're not as qualified to manage the delivery of IT as are staff who have dedicated their careers to technology.
Ultimately, meddling in each other's domains damages team performance. Furthermore, shared accountability is equivalent to no accountability. Without individual accountability, projects drift. Without clear individual authorities, projects mire. And when things go wrong, everybody takes cover under the banner of "teamwork". The finger-pointing inevitably scars relationships.
The truth is, a great partnership is symbiotic. It takes advantage of people's different strengths, channelling each to contribute their unique talents to the tasks that most need them. Great partnerships are built on clear, distinct areas of authority which are defined based on distinct competencies and accountabilities. In this way, partnerships create synergies - capabilities greater than the sum of the parts, and certainly far greater than the muddy accountabilities and diluted competencies of the "all for one, one for all" definition of partnership.
Dangerous Definition 2: We're the IT Team-Members
Another misguided definition of partnership that I've heard sounds something like this: "We are partners with our business clients, and hence equals. And since we're the IT experts in this partnership, we'll handle that for them."
Note that this is the exact opposite of customer focus, which says: "We know what's best for you." That attitude can only serve to erode client-IT relationships. Furthermore, this definition of partnership is fundamentally disempowering and unproductive.
Imagine the finance department saying to you: "We know money, so we'll decide your budget and your investments for you." But of course, you'll still be held accountable for results. OK, this may sound familiar, but you know it's untenable. You can't be held accountable for results when you can't control the means to get there. Similarly, clients can't be held accountable for their bottom lines if they cannot control means like IT.
In fact, this touches on the "Golden Rule" of organizational design: Authority and accountability must always match. If authority and accountability are separated, problems are inevitable: Those with accountability but lacking matching authority are powerless. They cannot perform, and are set up to be scapegoats. They will adopt a helpless "victim" mentality, take no initiatives, and spend a lot of time reading Dilbert and laughing about how futile it is to try to accomplish anything important.
Those with authority but not matching accountability are unconstrained. They can make decisions without bearing the consequences; they can tell others what to do, and blame others when their commands backfire. Without checks and balances, they do as they please, and ultimately become tyrants.
Using the concept of partnership to justify disempowering clients is perverse. It undermines clients' ability to successfully manage their businesses, and leads to resentment and alienated relationships. Healthy partnerships are based on mutual respect and support, not power games. Partners never disempower one another, since they know that their own success depends on their partner's success.
The most effective partnerships are based on the business-within-a-business paradigm. IT staff treat business clients as customers who have the right to choose what they will and won't buy from IT. They respect that clients know their businesses better than IT ever will. And even if they think they know the business better than clients, IT staff know that clients must have full authority over their factors of production (including IT) if they're to be held accountable for their business results.
Conversely, clients respect IT staff's knowledge of IT. And even if they think they know IT as well as the professionals (after reading that proverbial airline magazine), they know that IT staff must be empowered to run the IT business their own way if they're to be held accountable for the successful delivery of IT products and services.