Business Sponsorship

All contributions to this very deserving cause are most welcome
Strong business sponsorship is generally cited as a major success factor for IT projects. From one perspective this is essentially a truism, but looking at the phrase from a different angle perhaps reveals something of interest – indeed perhaps it highlights a reason for some IT projects failing. Let’s look at a definition to start with:

  sponsor /spónsər/ n. & v. • n. 2 a a person or organization that promotes or supports an artistic or sporting activity etc. (O.E.D.)  

There are other definitions, but maybe surprisingly the one I show above is probably the closest to the meaning of “business sponsorship”. The very first entry in my Oxford English Dictionary for this word is one that brings back memories:

  sponsor /spónsər/ n. & v. • n. 1 a person who supports an activity done for charity by pledging money in advance. (O.E.D.)  

This takes me back to school (a long time ago) when every year we had a sponsored 20 mile (32 km) walk around the streets of London, each time for a different charity. In an age before such events became mainstream, I believe we held some record for the amount of money raised. It is surprising how many hills you can fit into 20 miles, even in London, and I can well remember how tired I was after doing this as an eleven-year-old.

A good place to go and ask for sponsorship money

I can also recall wandering from house-to-house in my neighbourhood, knocking on doors with my sponsorship form to ask for pledges. As a rather naive child I never really understood why some people were occasionally a little disgruntled to have me appear on their doorstep at 9am on a Sunday. Of course, post walk, I had to do the same rounds again to collect the money. I escapes me how much I raised, several hundred pounds I think, but I also remember some people raising a lot more than that.

Both of the above definitions have the connotation of a kindly benefactor indulging a pet cause, be that the arts, or a small schoolboy. There is also the sense that the sponsor is vicariously involved, no one is asking them to play a recital, or to walk 20 miles. Perhaps here we begin to detect the seed of a problem.

When I read IT people on various on-line forums speaking about ensuring business sponsorship, or gaining business buy in, I get the strong impression of an idea originated in IT which is seeking support. Some of the recent discussions on, which formed the basis for my earlier article: Who should be accountable for data quality? are a case in point. Several contributors have made comments along the lines of “IT needs to educate the business about the importance of data quality” – as well as being rather patronising, I think that this perspective on business life is rather wrong-headed.

In my mind it takes me back to an IT colleague (at which company I will not mention) saying “of course we [i.e. IT people] are so much smarter than them [i.e. non-IT people]”. To this day I am unsure whether he was joking or not. In my experience, IT people are just like non-IT people, some are smart, some are not, most are somewhere in between – I suspect the distribution is pretty similar in both cases.

Why have a dog and Bach yourself?

So when people talk about business sponsorship, maybe this is code for convincing the paymasters that some of IT’s ideas are worth spending money on. Maybe it is the same as a penniless 18th century musician seeking the indulgence of a feudal monarch. IT may have all of the tunes, but he who pays the piper…

On the other hand, if IT and non-IT were well-aligned then maybe it would be more of a case of the business seeking IT sponsorship; i.e. of business folk originating ideas and IT working out how to implement them. Of course I tend to be an advocate of a partnership approach. I read recently on a thread about some IT departments being active and others passive. I would recommend IT being active, but not in the sense of pursuing its own agenda, or feeling (as perhaps my IT colleague did) that it knows best.

This was the noblest IT project of them all...

Maybe instead of seeking business sponsorship – which sounds rather like what you would do after IT had already figured out what to do and why – it would make sense to seek business engagement much earlier in the piece – this would hopefully lead to jointly crafted approaches that have business support baked-in from the outset. Surely this is preferable to the corporate equivalent of going door-to-door soliciting money, no matter how noble the cause might appear the the IT person who originated it.

13 thoughts on “Business Sponsorship

  1. Peter,

    Excellent and thought provoking post.

    I too have experienced IT teams who believed that they were smarter than ‘the business’ which led to many mistakes and misunderstandings. It was entertaining to note the number of times I (being on the business side of the fence) when discussing IT related matters recieved incredulous responses along the lines of “But you can’t understand about that, you are not in IT…”. Over time, some of these people recognised that the opinions of those outside IT on technical matters ARE of value.

    Your comment also reminded me of a friend who had a sign on his desk (which was just intended for entertainment) stating “I refuse to have a battle of wits with someone who is unarmed”. It was notable that one manager became very upset about this sign, believing it was directed at him.


    • Julian,

      Thank you for the comment – in general any group of people who begin to feel that they have all the answers is probably heading for a fall. Considering other inputs and looking at an area from a different perspective is generally beneficial.

      As for your friend’s colleague, paranoia is a powerful force!


  2. Peter – thanks for the post. I share similar memories to your own (including the sponsored walks)

    In particular I recognise the trait for IT staff and developers having the high and mighty attitude. I have an ex-collegue who proudly wears a T-shirt with the strident motif declaring the Transact SQL statement:

    Select * From Users where Clue > 0
    0 Rows Found

    Equally I am continually astounded by businesses that hold little regard for the requirement of at least some business acumen amongst their IT team. I am reminded of the time I attended an internal Business System steering committee reminding the Logistics team that the requirement for a certain element of data quality that they should have been accountable for was resulting in a regulatory non-conformance. Senior management who were attending were flabergasted that the IT guy knew this regulatory stuff when the Logistics team didn’t…

    I totally agree with your post and would add that the best way to gain business sponsorship for IT enabled Business Projects is to ensure that techology investment is 100% aligned to business goals and objectives.

    • Paul,

      Thanks for the comment – knowing technology is never enough, this needs to be leavened with business knowledge.

      Probably my most effective work has been co-leading projects where I had an appreciation of the business needs and my business partner was technically savvy. It helps to have a shared area of understanding, even if your expertise is different.

      I always promote the idea of any IT person working for me taking time to understand the business context for their work and how IT fits into the overall business landscape – not sure how you can be truly successful in any other way.


  3. Interesting post, Peter. Is sponsorship enough? What about engagement? What about effective and sustained engagement? How do we measure these?

    It’s facile to claim “sponsorship” but does that ensure accountability?

    I have no idea about the answers to these questions. I suppose that I’m just feeling quizzical today.

    • Hi Phil,

      In my conclusion I state that:

      it would make sense to seek business engagement much earlier in the piece – this would hopefully lead to jointly crafted approaches that have business support baked-in from the outset

      I think this pretty much sums up my position.


  4. Peter, excelent post as always.
    I’ve seen few projects where the IT had the leading role in the game. But sometimes, although there are very extremely smart people in the IT teams, there is just NOT enough big picture and long term strategy on the field.

    • Thank you for your comment Dragos,

      I think it comes down to individuals. If the IT guy/gal is the best leader in the group then let them lead – if its is the non-IT person, then let them come to the fore.


  5. Your comments about sponsorship are right on target. In my experience, many managers seem to view sponsorship as “reasonaly benevelent oversight.”

    I have suggested that my clients throw out the term “sponsor” and use the term “executive in charge” of the project. (IT folks have been agast at my suggestion)

    • Hi Dutch,

      Thank you for your comments. I think having the executive involved with at least some skin in the game, or – heaven forfend – even taking time to shaping the project, is pretty much mandatory.


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