Blog posted by: Leif Andersson - Zington, July 2023.
What makes relationship management any different in digital transformation?
Organizations are more dependent on IT than ever. However, if IT is considered only as an operational or transactional activity, it will never fulfil its true potential as part of digital transformation.
This is important to recognize as, historically, IT has put very little focus on cultivating relationships with stakeholders. It has tended to work on an “order” level: I place an order, you deliver (and this transaction is dictated by a service level agreement).
The downside to this “transaction” - between the IT organization and either internal or external customers or suppliers - is that it's often person to person and the human relationship simply disappears when a specific individual moves elsewhere in the company or leaves altogether.
Consequently, on an operational level, the business simply keeps going with its strategic plans and often without a meaningful relationship with IT.
So, how can IT get further up the decision cycle within the business and build trust?
Figure 1 Marriage guidance, published with permission from Paul Wilkinson
A new language, approach and relationship
If IT is to work with business on a strategic level, it needs to use another language and approach to develop a different type of relationship with senior leadership.
For example, IT might chose to say: “we must move to the cloud.” In response, the business is likely to say” “Why? How does that help the business?”
Building trust needs the ability to communicate with a range of stakeholders in non-IT language, along with showing that IT understands the business and is consistent in keeping its promises. With this understanding, IT can therefore start to help the business meet its needs.
Part of this also depends on the skills of organizational change management: for when the business wants to replace a system, make a change or undertake digital transformation it needs to recognize that this will affect processes in the organization and even how the business takes itself to market.
Start-ups steeped in digital technology understand this inherently, but more established businesses face issues, often with the internal silos they have created over time.
For example, a business might want a digital system to improve product returns, but it won't work by looking at an IT system in isolation; it needs to connect with other systems, processes and departments whose involvement is vital. If relationships in the organisation are driven by only operational questions, this information will probably show up late in a project and will cause delays, conflicts and potentially affect results and value.
The value of best practice: ITIL 4 relationship management
Developing a relationship management capability - as in ITIL 4's management practice - is something that needs to be part of an organization's culture.
So, having a defined method - a way of working with clear guidelines - enables a wider group of people to be part of building an organization-wide capability.
And ITIL spells out the qualities that are needed in today's so-called T-shaped professionals to support this culture change: specialists with broader knowledge including relationship, problem management, innovation, social and leadership skills.
However, organizations and their leadership should beware short sightedness: building truly strategic relationships takes a long time and patience rather than always looking for quick wins.
The idea that IT and business must align is something we've been talking about for decades,  but the time for talk is running out. Somebody - for example, the CIO - needs to take responsibility for the creation of a new type of business-IT relationship; one that will ensure organizations can innovate and get the most from digital transformation.
Editor's note: The ITIL 4 Specialist: Business Relationship Management module and core guidance e-book is now available: designed for IT professionals involved in establishing and nurturing the relationships between service providers, consumer organizations and their stakeholders.
 Henderson, J.C. and Venkatraman, N., 1989. Strategic alignment: a framework for strategic information technology management.