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Partners or Problems?

Partners or Problems?

Many CIOs must find themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to sales calls. The rock is that one of their perennial challenges is keeping abreast of technology. Where once IT was merely a backroom activity associated with accounting today it underpins the work of a wide range of people. This means that CIOs must be open to learning about a myriad of new and different products and services in the market place. However, the hard place is that with so many suppliers in the IT industry all their time could be dissipated listening to sales people.

The accepted wisdom today to deal with this challenge is to standardise the IT environment around a select group of suppliers. Unfortunately, today's CIOs do not have the luxury of their 1980s counterparts. These CIOs were able to nail their colours to the mast of a single vendor. Today's IT environment is much more complex and requires many different components working in harmony. In fact research by CIO's sister publication in the US revealed that most CIOs in the US have increased the number of vendors they regard as strategic.

Locally, this does not appear such an issue. Each year IDC's "Forecast for Management" survey asks CIOs to identify the three major challenges facing them over the next 18 months. While local CIOs acknowledge the constant challenge of keeping abreast of technology, rating it their eighth most important task, they do not seem to find much difficulty managing these suppliers or matching their claims to reality. These chores were ranked 19th and 23rd out of the 25 options presented.

Moreover, local CIOs seem quite appreciative of the advice of vendors. For several years the survey asked CIOs to identify the biggest influences on their opinions. Nearly 30 per cent of respondents identified vendors as a significant influence on their views. This is substantially above the ratings for consultants, (18 per cent), and, dare I say it, analysts (9 per cent).

Perhaps, though, local CIOs are more blunt in their appreciation of the old maxim that you pay for what you get. As the CIO (US) article argued, to establish an effective relationship with a supplier you first need to assess the level of relationship you want with them. If the supply has been a simple cash for commodity transaction it would be unreasonable to expect much of a post sale relationship. However, if you were implementing a major ERP solution or outsourcing the data centre the success of the project would be closely linked to the trust generated by the forged partnership.

I recently undertook an opinion survey of IS executives. It was noticeable that there was significant consistency in the vendor qualities that attracted and alienated CIOs. Above all CIOs wanted good account management from their suppliers rather than being shunted across an endless succession of sales representatives. Similarly, they had no time for technological zealots ignorant of their business challenges.

However, the US article looked at the other side of the coin. It asked suppliers what they wanted from customers. Top of the list was respect. Suppliers stressed they wanted customers whose executive were prepared to listen to what they had to say. As one organisation put it, "If the CIO doesn't want to meet me that's an indication of the value I'm bringing to the relationship."

Perhaps, then, this is where CIOs could do the most to improve their supplier relationships. Each year "Forecast for Management" asked CIOs which individuals are represented on their IT steering committees. Despite the strategic importance of certain vendors to their operations, only three per cent of respondents invited their vendors along. However, if vendors were present they would have a better understanding of the business and its personalities. For CIOs this might enable them to kill two birds with one stone. It would entail no more time on their busy agendas yet it would show respect and help foster better relationships with their key suppliers. vPeter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia

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