Bridging the Gap

Relationship managers are crucial liaisons between technology and business, but without proper support, they can end up being distrusted by both.

Some jobs should come with small print attached, just like the drug advertisements you see on TV. Take the job title "relationship manager," whose warning label might read: "Requires great sense of humor and high tolerance for ambiguity. Only true diplomats should apply. Do not attempt unless fully supported by the organizational structure."

The path of the relationship manager is a tricky one, fraught with political potholes and organizational obstacles. Companies create this position -- also called account manager, client manager, customer liaison and business information manager -- to help close gaps between IT and the business, whether they be gaps in communication, image, credibility, trust or all of the above and more.

Relationship managers are called upon to coordinate IT activities across a given business unit and drive initiatives that position the unit for competitive success, according to Marc Cecere, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Some people hired into this role have spent their careers in IT but also have solid business acumen and deep knowledge of business processes. Others are senior-level, technology-literate business people willing to learn the inner workings of IT.

But when well-meaning companies slap a relationship manager on a rift between two warring parties like a Band-Aid and hope for the best, things can go wrong. "Where there's a deep-seated lack of IT/business alignment and the relationship between the client and IT is strained, trying to bring in a relationship manager to paper over some of these problems is not going to be successful," says Jim Hightower, a fellow at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass., who had a relationship manager role as an IT manager at a small utility.

"If the relationship between IT and the business is already unstable, the relationship manager is just someone who's putting out fires and smoothing out problems," agrees Craig Symons, a Forrester analyst. "That's not going to get you very far."

Indeed, while 40 out of 100 companies surveyed by Forrester in August last year said they have a relationship manager function, there are many ways to get it wrong, Cecere says.