Bridging the Gap: using liaisons or not?

Posted: April 16, 2011 in Horizontal Alignment, IT Engagement Model
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One of the proposed mechanisms to improve alignment is the usage of relationship managers or liaisons. Some people think this is usefull, others think the opposite. From firsthand experience I can say that it can be usefull, but only when the role is filled in properly.

The liaison role is one of the linking mechanisms as proposed by Fonstad in the IT Engagement model. Also Luftman suggests using this role to improve Business/IT alignment. But there is criticism on these kind of roles. In his blog, Harwell Trasher puts down a strong advice not to use a Business/IT Liaison person. He found out that over time liaison people gravitate toward either the business or IT camps, and begin to take sides in disagreements. Then, the liaison will magnify the problems rather than solving them.

Although I recognize this risk, I personally think liaisons can help improving alignment between business and IT. In the right situation, with the right person and for the right period of time.

Liaison roles are usually set up when the volume of contacts between departments grows. They are formal roles designed to facilitate communication and bypass vertical communication channels. A lot of their work is carried out through informal communication of information. Problems which lead to the introduction of liaisons includes conflict between business versus IT, inadequate communication, poor understanding, no structure to prioritisation, business without control, increased pressure on systems, time wastage, insufficient requirements determination and employee demoralisation [Barry and O’Flaherty, 2003].

One of the critical characteristics of this role is its ability to remain neutral. They are supposed to facilitate both sides and work through any impasses. The role of liaisons is highly political, liaisons must “understand politics and then avoiding them”.

What’s extremely important, is that there comes a stage in every action, where the liaison must step out of the process, because he/she is no longer adding value. The liaison should facilitate both business and IT to work together, but shouldn’t get in between. So, after the initial stages of communication, his or her role will vanish. Liaisons should act somewhat reactive, sweeping up issues and promoting collaboration as they go along. Whenever possible, push back both sides (business and IT) and mediate in conflict situations.

Liaisons can help in organisations where Business/IT Alignment lacks maturity. Liaisons can help bridging the gap between the two parties and help developing communications. But, liaisons should limit themselves to facilitating. Otherwise they can get stuck in the middle, and they can hinder further collaboration by business and IT and become just another barrier. Then, they could be used for things where business and IT don’t feel like working together. In all cases, the liaison should protect their neutrality and keep the facilitating role.

Question is in which unit this liaison is organised. It could be within IT, as well as within the business. What I think is wise to do, is to select a person for this role with experience in the opposite side. If the liaison is organisationally part of IT, select someone with extensive business experience. If the liaison is part of the business, appoint someone with an IT background. In the end, a person with experience in both business and IT is ideal, but not frequently available.

References

Blog Harwell Trasher: http://blog.makingitclear.com/2010/06/23/liaison/

O’Flaherty, Brian, and Barry, Owen Harte: A Case of ‘Non Strategic’Alignment – An IT and Business Unit Liaison Role, 2003

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