How The Right Language Can Improve Business-IT Relationships & Strategy

Contributed by David Johnson

In recent months, I have had a lot of conversations with my peers in IT companies around the USA.  One of those conversations was around the language used by IT professionals. The question was asked: “How should I be speaking to my business leaders and managers so they will consider me an equal and not just a support resource?”

The BRM Body of Knowledge (BRMBoK) defines five business relationship maturity levels, however, only the two lower levels and the final level are relevant to this language discussion. Level 1 is classified as ‘ad-hoc’ and at this level there is little or no real relationship between the BRM and the stakeholder (in this example, the business is the stakeholder). BRMs at Level 2 are classified as ‘order-takers’ and at this level, the stakeholder will typically engage the BRM only when they need something. Otherwise they want the BRM to stay out of the way. Level 5 (the highest level) is classified at the ‘strategic partner’ and at this level, the BRM and the stakeholder share common goals for maximizing value, share risks, as well as rewards.

The challenge is that many IT professionals don’t know how to speak using the language of business. Instead, either they have little or no interaction. And if they do, the interaction language is not conducive  to a strategic level relationship.

IT professionals at the lower levels are typically classified as order takers. This could be considered to be a more subservient and passive relationship. Typical words and phrases used at this level include:

“What can I do for you?”

“Customer”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Client”

“Service Provider”

“Let me check”

“I need this now”

“When do you need this?”

“I’m sorry.”

As you can see, these words and phrases do not resonate with someone who wants to be a strategic partner but more with someone taking orders. The language of use by higher level IT professionals, on the other hand, is quite different. It is more of an equal-level partnership. Here are some words and phrases used at the strategic partner level:

“This may be of interest to you…”

“What do you think?”

“Partner”

“Business enabling capabilities”

“What does success look like?”

“How much business value are we delivering?”

“What is the 3-year business strategy for our LOB?”

“What are the key performance drivers for our LOB?”

“Long-term plan”

“What is the window of opportunity”

“Big Picture”

Notice the differences, not only in word choice, but also in the tone and meaning of the words used. If an IT professional wishes to become more of a strategic partner with their business leaders they need to move away from thinking of the relationship as “me” and “them” to more as “us.” It is not “their” business; it is “our” business. It is not “what can I do for you” but more “what can we to together” to achieve our mutual goals.

The industry talks about how the business and IT need to work together to achieve common organizational goals. Like we discussed in other articles, the term is “IT convergence.” If we truly want to achieve such convergence we need to not only be “walking the walk” but in fact we should begin by “talking the talk.” Our language needs to match the relationship we wish to have first to set the tone for the relationship.

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