Opinion: The business is not your partner

From IT supplier to business leader.

We have all seen the articles: Treating our internal business stakeholders as customers is out; the supplier/customer model is dead. The new black is ‘business as a partner’. The idea behind this is that the supplier/customer model is too reactionary and puts our IT department in a subservient position. It did serve a purpose. The supplier/customer model was a reaction to the bad old days of IT where business departments were made to feel subservient to the IT department.

Then, the business realised that IT wasn’t really that unfathomable, and IT realised that it better start being nice to the people who are actually paying for its services. But it soon discovered that the new supplier/customer model has its own limitations – it easily leads to an adversarial relationship.

Partnering is for losers

The new ‘partnership’ model has been proposed as an improvement on the current model: One that leads to greater value for the business, and allows the IT group to take a more proactive position. I’m not convinced.

The premise for this shift is that IT is now so important and pervasive that the supplier/customer model is no longer adequate. This is akin to Bill Gates in his heyday saying, “Microsoft is now so powerful and influential that we’re going to give away our success and allow all our customers to come in as partners.” In reality, asking your customers to come in as partners is basically asking for a bailout. It’s not a sign of success; it’s a sign of failure. When a business is doing well, potential partners come to them asking to join in the spoils, and they pay a handsome fee for the privilege. Look at it this way: If the leader of another department came to you and said, “We don’t want to do this by ourselves anymore, let’s be partners”, what would you think?

Eventually, ‘partners’ are going to smell the coffee and realise that they have received the short straw. Then, they’ll be asking themselves: “If I need to do the thinking around IT strategy and innovation, why do I need an internal IT department at all? I could engage an external services provider who can work on their own and let me get back to my real business.”

Ultimately, the key problem with the partnership model is that it’s an admission that we really only know how to run IT as a commodity. The good news is that there is a far better model to which the strategic CIO will aspire.

Take the lead

IT is more important and pervasive than ever. However, instead of looking to shift our role from supplier to partner, we need to elevate our role to IT leader. From a business perspective, this is the only model that will lead to a higher level of value for the organisation as a whole.

In addition to demonstrating a deep understanding of the business strategy, direction and operations, the IT leader has the ability to act as futurist, strategist, mentor and coach. It is this approach that will inspire business confidence in our capabilities.

Through visionary thinking and the development and communication of an effective IT strategy, we can reshape our IT services to better handle the requirements of the new technological and business landscape. In the same way that most large IT vendors evolve, we can move our focus from operations through to higher value consulting and leadership services. New sourcing models such as cloud computing can help to facilitate this transition.

Focus on partnership and IT will be seen as irrelevant. No guts, no glory. Focus on leadership, however, and IT will provide ongoing value and be seen as an essential element of the organisation’s success.

Dr Gerald Khoury is the managing director of GK Strategic, working in the areas of IT innovation and strategy. He consults to the private and public sectors throughout Asia-Pacific.