Becoming a strategic partner to the rest of the organization has been a top priority for many CIOs for years, yet business leaders and end users remain dissatisfied with IT's ability to meet their needs. To improve the relationship, up to 70 per cent of IT functions have created IT–business liaison roles.

The roles are designed to be the face of the IT organization to business partners—the one number to call for any conversation with IT. The liaisons are tasked with understanding business strategy and identifying opportunities for technology to enable business outcomes. Earlier this year we wrote about the need for business liaisons to become challengers, capable of shaping demand for technology, but in many organizations there is a second structural challenge that CIOs must overcome.

Most liaison roles are stretched too thin. They are responsible for up to 20 different activities spanning shaping demand and delivering projects. Collectively, the activities require a range of skills that are hard to find in one individual. The role also requires trade-offs that make liaisons insufficiently proactive or creative.

In other words, even if they have the skills to be challengers, they don't have the time. The CIO aspiration of offering a single point of contact to business partners ends up creating a bottleneck that erodes the core advantage of streamlined communication.

The CIO Executive Board, a program of the Corporate Executive Board, has created an IT-Business Engagement Diagnostic that quantifies the impact on engagement of specific IT activities such as proactively suggesting new solutions and understanding business strategy.

The diagnostic is based on responses from more than 4,000 IT and business leaders and highlights six activities that have disproportionate impact. It also helps to show that, on average, overstretched liaisons may spend only 37 per cent of their time on these activities.

Source: CIO Executive Board IT–Business Engagement Assessment Tool.

Recognizing that liaison activities differ dramatically in the value they create and the skills they require. CIOs at progressive organizations are streamlining liaison roles for greater impact by adding scale or focus to the role.

A leading life insurance company in the US pairs liaisons with architects to generate additional scale and help focus liaison activities on strategic issues, while allowing architects full ownership of additional activities such as solutions design and portfolio prioritization.

This two-in-a-box model is compatible with a traditional applications and infrastructure group structure and when business partners are less than mature in articulating and prioritizing IT demand. It can also be a good way to give architects greater exposure to business needs, reducing the risk of ivory tower architectural plans and roadmaps.

The CIO at a European technology provider focuses his business liaisons solely on understanding and shaping demand, shifting prioritization and delivery responsibilities to a separate end-to-end delivery management structure.

These pure play liaisons act as sounding boards for business partners, sensing business needs and problems in advance and brokering appropriate introductions to the delivery organization. The pure play model is appropriate for organizations that use a service management model and have relatively mature business partners.

Refocusing the liaison role more than doubles the time liaisons spend on the activities with the highest impact on engagement. We estimate that the pure play model allows liaisons to spend 86 per cent of their time, and two-in-a-box liaisons 60 per cent of their time, on the most impactful activities.

In either case, the result is stronger engagement and an IT organization that is seen as a strategic enabler, not an order taker.

Andrew Horne is global head of research at the CIO Executive Board, program of the Corporate Executive Board.