Questioning the Role of the Business Relationship Manager

I’ve been deeply into understanding and developing the role of Business Relationship Manager (BRM) since the early 1990’s when, as a Partner at Ernst & Young’s Center for Business Innovation, I began researching what was then an emerging role.  Since then, I’ve continued research into this important role, led many consulting engagements helping companies implement or improve the performance of the BRM role, and have been on the faculty for several global BRM development programs.

More recently, I’ve been a co-moderator of the Professional Business Relationship Manager Group on LinkedIn.  This has been a fascinating experience for me – some very interesting dialogs surface from time to time, and the diverse opinions and approaches to the BRM role become ever more evident each day.  Also, the sheer growth of this group over the last couple of years is remarkable, and speaks to the growing importance of the BRM role.

What is a Business Relationship Manager?

First, it is important to understand that this is a role, not a job title.  In fact the job titles for people who fill this role vary enormously.  Adding to the confusion around titles, “Relationship Manager” is a common title in banking, and we get a lot of applications to join the LinkedIn group from banking officers – not the intended audience!  Also, a number of pure “sales” jobs call themselves “relationship managers.”  I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s not the focus of the BRM group.

Second, the ways that the BRM role is implemented varies significantly.  Sometimes it is a sole practitioner – other times, the BRM leads a small team (anything from 1 or 2 business analysts to a larger team, including architects and even developers.)  Sometimes the BRM reports to the IT organization – typically as a direct report to the CIO.  Other times, it reports to a business leader – perhaps with a dotted line relationship to the CIO.

No matter what the variations in organization and structure, the common thread across BRM implementations is an interface between business and IT.  The common goal (though expressed and measured in myriad ways!) is to increase the value realized from IT investments (typically, new initiatives), assets (usually current systems and infrastructure) and capabilities (the services and products offered by the IT organization.)

This “interface” responsibility implies two ‘faces’ of the BRM role:

Representing the Business to IT

This is one of the BRM ‘faces’ – representing a given business unit (or units, or business process, or geography) to IT.  In this regard, the BRM’s primary role is in shaping and surfacing business demand – always with an eye to maximizing the business value of IT investments, assets and capabilities.

Representing IT to the Business

This is the other BRM ‘face’ – representing IT to the given business unit(s).  In this regard, the BRM’s primary role is in supply management – ensuring that the IT organization understands business needs and expectations, and is delivering against those expectations.

But, What is the Real Rationale for the BRM Role?

Implicit in the many debates I see in the BRM community (and behind some of the failures I see in making the BRM role successful) is the question:

What is the most important aspect for the BRM to focus on – demand management or supply management?”

There is no easy answer to this – it really is a function of both supply and demand maturity.  But, I will make some assertions based on a great deal of experience:

  1. If supply maturity is low (i.e., basic IT services are unreliable, unpredictable, unstable, unclear) the BRM role will almost certainly fail.  It cannot add real value, spends it’s time apologizing for IT and making excuses, and is quickly seen by the business partner as “overhead.”
  2. If supply maturity is moderate (i.e., basic IT services work well, but capacity is highly constrained, projects take too long to deliver and are prone to delays) the BRM role has to play a careful balancing act – stimulating and shaping demand while living within the constraints of supply.
  3. If supply maturity is high (i.e., a well regarded IT organization that delivers basic services and project work; that has ‘elastic’ supply that can flex with demand and can deliver with ‘agility’) the BRM role can and should focus almost exclusively on demand shaping and surfacing.

Of these three situations, scenario 1 is the most treacherous for the BRM.  It’s essentially a losing proposition.  My advice to clients is, “Don’t put BRM’s in place – fix the basic services first!”

Scenario 2 takes a great deal of finesse.  The temptation for the BRM is to either try to fix the problems of supply, or shield the business partner from those problems.  Fixing supply is best done with those on the supply side who are responsible and accountable for IT supply.  If you put the BRM in that role, they can’t be effective in their demand management role.  Once their business partners see them as part of the supply side, the BRM loses their credibility as valuable demand shapers.

Why would I invite you to my leadership team strategy retreat – you’re the person who’s fixing IT services!” might be the reaction of a business leader to a BRM who has asked to join the business unit’s strategy formulation retreat.

On the other hand, shielding the business partner from supply side woes is also a trap – what I refer to as “colluding with dysfunctional behavior” which is never a good idea!

Scenario 2 also takes great skill with the discipline of ‘value management’ – understanding how IT investments, assets and capabilities lead to business value – making sure that the constrained supply is working on the highest value possibilities, ensuring that low value requests do not get through the intake process and that value is actually ‘realized’ – felt and seen by the business.

Scenario 3 is the ‘holy grail’ for the BRM.  Unfortunately, by the time IT supply has reached that level of maturity, so has business demand, and the BRM role may be redundant.  But that’s a story for another post…

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10 thoughts on “Questioning the Role of the Business Relationship Manager

  1. Dear Vaughan,

    I am a current MBA student and also with an IT background. You have rightly pointed the link between demand and supply chain for an efficient BRM. In my company, I have witnessed exactly the same role that our BRM had been performing. According to me, essentially a BRM is a liaison between the organization and the client effectively managing both supply and demand needs.

    I want to scale up my career as a BRM too after my MBA.


    • Thanks for the comment Anusha. But be careful about trying to manage “both supply and demand needs.” My major point (though perhaps not sufficiently spelled out) is that a BRM cannot effectively do both. The IT organization should be focused on managing supply, and the BRM on managing demand. They may have a minor role on the supply side – negotiating service levels and surfacing new service needs. But the more they get dragged into supply issues, the less they will be recognized by their business partners for their demand role.

  2. Dear Vaughan,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article! Having been a member of the Professional Business Relationship Manager Group on LinkedIn for a while, I did not fully realize what pleasure it is to be acquainted with you, until I came about your blog. Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom! I am eagerly looking forward to reading your future posts!

    Best regards,
    Aleksandr Z.

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  4. Isnt this function getting bloated in recent time hence
    1, What is the right number of BRM’s for an organisation ?
    2, What is the right mix of BRM Org – BRM + BA’s + BRM Leader ?
    3, How to determine the portfolio of a BRM – mirror to Business Units OR focus geographically example Emerging Markets ?
    4, Where should BRM generally report into CIO or Business Leader for a large > 15 Billion USD Company ?
    5, Are there any benchmarks for sizing the BRM numbers and
    6, What are the hard metrics to track the success of BRM’s ?

    • Interesting question, Jain! I’m not sure I’ve seen much evidence of the BRM function getting bloated, but it can clearly happen. To your specific questions:
      1. That all depends on business and IT maturity. The correct answer would be “0” for a low maturity organization, and perhaps a low number for a very high maturity environment. Between these extremes, it would depend upon how you align BRM’s with the business units they support. At least 1 BRM for each major business unit, or geography, or major business process.
      2. Again, a good question, but hard to generalize – 1 or 2 BA’s per BRM and perhaps 10-12 BRM’s per BRM leader would be my starting guess.
      3. Another good question – I think this depends upon the business operating model and were you believe the most value will be created. Some companies are geographically focused, others by line of business and still others by business process (supply chain, for example) and many with a mix of these. Again, I think you have to go where the business value is likely to be found.
      4. I’ve not seen the reporting relationship as a key variable in terms of how well the role works. Most often, BRM’s do report to the CIO with dotted line to the Business Unit, but I could be the other way round. With the right BRM and the right competencies, reporting lines are not really important. Either way, the BRM should be seen both as a senior person on the CIO team and the business leadership team.
      5. Not that I know of, and if I did I would not trust benchmarks. This is way too dependent upon contingent factors.
      6. There’s been some good discussion of the metrics question on the LinkedIn Professional Business Relationship Managers Group. If you aren’t on that, I suggest you join. But again, as with benchmarks, one companies success metrics are unlikely to work for another!

      Thanks again for a great comment. Let us know what you think of my responses!

      • Thanks Vaughan. Appreciate such a speedy response and I particularly think point 2 gives me a start. Point 4 clarifies and removes an extraneous factor from my thinking.

        The reason I feel BRM is getting bloated as some large MNCs have hundreds of BRM’s. My thinking is that
        1. Wrong functions being performed – It is difficult to interface with business to shape demand hence many BRM’s including BA get into supply side “low hanging fruits” like UAT , Training and Project Management , Detailed Business Requirements . This makes them ask for more staff and hence over a time period the numbers increase but not the right focus
        2. Portfolio Type and Numbers not aligned to Current Business Operating Model – BRM’s are now an established concept but as and when the Organisations established AND aligned the function to their business units , the business units themsleves have changed a lot since then. However most times I find that BRM Portfolios – numbers (BRM) and what they look at stay the same.
        3. COnfusion between EA , BPM , Process Excellence (6 Sigma) – causing duplication say between Business Architects in EA versus BA’s in BRM Org. Further in BPM the business process experts also duplicate at time the BA function

        Also wanted to ask you in your experience the business operating model for a Universal Bank there would a 1:1 BRM : Business Unit Managing Director / Operations Incharge ratio ? What I am getting at that typically on a day to day basis say for Retail Banking Division would the stakeholder for the BRM be one guy from Business – that I thought was the intention but what I have found is that most times from the business side it is either several or none !. Can you let me know in your expereince who does the BRM in practice interface from the business side – Managing Director-Head of Retail Banking or Operations example Collections Head or both.

        Appreciate your time and effort.

        Himanshu Jain

      • Wow, you are really making some great points and asking some great questions – thank you for that!

        1. Your comments about bloating are correct – BRM’s in an attempt to please their business partners (or to redress past sins of the IT organization) sometimes lose focus and their role gets watered down.
        2. Failing to align to current operating model is a problem. Even more challenging is the fact that business operating models change over time. You may have a financial institution that is become process oriented, so BRM’s are appointed for major business processes. But the old functional silos have not yet broken down (that can take 2-3 years!) so functionally-aligned BRM’s are still needed.
        3. This is one of my pet peeves. If you search my blog for the term “organizational clarity” you should find several references to this problem – often due to poorly defined roles and responsibilities. When “staff groups” such as Process Excellence start supporting other staff groups like IT, there are usually conflicting roles and turf battles.

        For your last (big) question, the BRM typically works with business stakeholders at multiple levels. The key relationship should be with the senior executive for the business unit (e.g., Retail Banking SVP or EVP) but the BRM will also work with AVP’s, Directors and Managers to accomplish the goals for business value of IT.

        I will dodge your question on “who does the BRM in practice interface from the business side” because this is so highly variable. The best wisdom I can give you is a quote from a very effective CIO. He would tell the head of a business unit, “I’m going to give you a very senior IT executive for free! My only requirements for that deal are that you will add him to your leadership team, and give him an office near yours.”

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