IT Business Partner Vs. Product Manager
What's different and what's common between the roles?

With the advent of digital transformation, the agile philosophy and software as a service, an evolution in the roles that deliver technology is now well established. These include User Experience Specialists, Scrum Masters, Product Managers, DevOps Engineers, and so on. However, as I continue to meet with people in the technology space, I'm finding an increasing conflation between IT Business Partner (IT BP) and Product Manager roles. Are we having another rebrand or is this a fundamental shift in how a company provisions its internal technology services? 

For example, one company wants to recruit an IT BP to manage the backlog of feature requests for an in-house application. A second example is when an IT BP discovers that his role will be replaced by an outsourced vendor, who will provide the same services and will be represented by an offshore Product Manager. A third example is in a corporate enterprise where a Product Manager manages an off-the-shelf package (e.g. SharePoint), its implementation, access, update release and configuration within the enterprise.

It strikes me that as people who may have done product management roles in smaller digital-first companies migrate into the career ladder of established corporate enterprises, they bring their product ideas on managing technology. However, the rules that govern the implementation of the product management role in SAAS and agile code development may not apply in a portfolio setting of enterprise IT management. 

Not all corporate enterprises have historically implemented the role of IT BP to the same extent as, say, Project Manager, Business Analyst or Service Delivery Manager in the technology function. I believe this is down to the personal experience of the CIO, who, based on their experience of IT BP, has decided whether or not their interpretation of the role adds value and, therefore, has chosen to adopt the role in the company. I suggest that the pharmaceutical industry stands out with the highest rate of implementation of the IT BP role. This aspect would require more investigation, but I suspect the industry's strong emphasis on the cultural values of cross-functional teamwork and collaboration engenders an environment where IT BP roles can thrive.

So, while the experience of implementing the IT BP role may have led to mixed views on success within a corporate enterprise, would recruiting a Product Manager fare any better? We need to review the following aspects, where I suggest the better fit for the two roles. 

  1. If the product is sold to external clients, it would lend itself more to "Product Management."

  2. If there is internal account management that is aligned to a function, division, or region, then IT BP is more appropriate.

  3. If the focus in managing demand is on prioritising features for an application, then Product Management would be a more appropriate fit.

  4. If the focus in managing demand is on prioritising a portfolio of sometimes wildly different project requests, then IT BP would be a more appropriate fit.

  5. A Business Partner role would fit better if the management focus areas were also on suppliers and infrastructure rather than solely on an application.

  6. If the role has to consider organisational change management, configuration and process design, the IT BP  would need to orchestrate the technology resources to evaluate and implement the Target Operating Mode, and the Product Manager would need to align the application's features related to that model. 

  7. Is the product a custom/in-house application, or can it be bought off the shelf? If it is off the shelf, then a procurement exercise lends itself towards IT BP, whereas internal application development lends itself to Product Management.

  8. Does the role encompass all of a business unit's technology needs rather than just one service or product? If so, the IT BP would be a better fit. 

A clue is in the job title. The closer the role is to designing and developing software code for a product, the more appropriate a product management role is. I understand Product Management in the software domain to be about product/market fit and curating a product roadmap to deliver business outcomes. The conflation in the roles is at the level of feature prioritisation or fulfilling business requests for a particular software application. While IT BP could prioritise features and both roles can be strategic,  the breadth and depth of business capability investigation and account management sets the IT BP role apart in an enterprise technology function. With product management, you've already decided on the product.

Having discussed some of the differences, I believe both roles face many common challenges:

  • Managing relationships across teams - influence and politics

  • Identifying value for the organisation and measuring it

  • Aligning business strategy to solutions

  • Managing demand and governance throughout the lifecycle

  • Changing and improving the way we work. 

So, whilst the context and focus may change, developing skills to excel in these challenges allows employees to transition and be promoted within the company to various roles. This context is where our Strategic Digital Business Partnering (SDBP®) framework comes in. It's a collection of core competencies that helps organisations drive value faster through our unique training and coaching method, providing your company the necessary skills for success in these roles and a variety of other business facing roles, helping the CIO improve engagement, collaboration and retention in their team.

For more information, < click here >

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IT Business Partner Vs. Product Manager
Baxter Thompson Ltd, Jon Baxter
30 April, 2024
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