What is relationship management?

One of the key tasks in managing IT is managing the relationship between IT and the business. CIOs who are good at relationship management are seen as more effective overall. But what is relationship management? And what can CIOs and other IT managers do to improve relations between business and IT?

As it turns out, relationship management is not about managing the relationship at all. It’s about a specific set of actions that help non-IT executives understand the value IT is providing, and help them understand their specific tasks in getting that value.

How Do We Know This?

We asked 137 attendees at a course called “IT for the Non-IT Executive” to comment on their CIOs’ roles and performance. We also asked them to report on their own IT management roles and performance.

The non-IT executives said their CIOs were pretty good at managing the IT organization, and actually very good at managing operations and infrastructure. But, their CIOs were extremely bad at relationship management, and only slightly better at application development.

Interestingly, these non-IT executives rated themselves as not too bad on relationship management and extremely good at supporting implementation. In other words, in the eyes of non-IT executives, the CIO bears all of the fault for poor application development and poor IT/business relationships. The non-IT executives feel they are doing all they can — it’s just that the CIO doesn’t know what he or she is doing.

What’s Going on Here?

The executives were clear on why they felt this way. They spend a lot of money on IT. They spend a lot of time working with IT, by providing experts to projects, serving on committees, and so on. But for all the giving, they don’t see much return. The systems keep running, but new systems don’t get built on time or on budget. Once installed, the systems don’t show the return they’ve been promised.

Sure, many business executives talk a good game but actually provide little support to IT. But in many cases, they really ARE trying to do the right thing. Unfortunately, even when trying to get involved, business executives don’t do it effectively.

That’s not their fault — it’s the fault of the CIO. Businesspeople aren’t IT experts. They need guidance. And, in many cases, CIOs are not giving the right kind of guidance. They’re not managing the non-IT executives properly.

What Does it Take to Manage the Relationship Well?

Top-performing firms were much better than their low-performing peers at a set of tasks that managed value in the eyes of their non-IT counterparts.

First, they were not only better at IT operations, but also better at showing the price/performance of operations. Second, they were better at helping the business executives feel they were making effective use of IT, including ensuring that business process changes were aligned with systems changes.

Finally, they had a clear and transparent process of prioritizing requests. This means that businesspeople didn’t just give input; they were forced to make tough choices.

Business executives knew which projects were going to happen and which were not, because they made the decisions themselves, under the guidance of the CIO. They knew exactly what would be required from them, and when, in order to ensure the success of the projects. In other words, effective CIOs managed their non-IT counterparts very effectively.


Relationship management is not about managing personal relationships. It’s not about whether the CIO reports to the CEO or the CFO. It’s not about how many hours the businesspeople devote to IT projects. It’s about managing the work and the roles. Good relationship management provides businesspeople with transparent insights into the value (and the issues) in IT delivery. It gives business executives clear direction on what specific tasks they need to do in order to get value from IT. In other words, it’s not about relationships, it’s about the work. Effective CIOs manage their non-IT counterparts as well as they manage their own people. As a result, everyone feels they’re getting more value from IT.

— George Westerman, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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