Vendor Relationships: Experts or Frauds?”

Vendor Relationship Critical Partnership Element #1: Expertise in new technologies

I recently ran an informal poll on LinkedIn that asked a relatively simple question:

Today’s IT leaders depend on a plethora of new players to drive change. What should CXOs most look for in a partner?

Here are the results ….

Aiming to cover each element in a separate post, I started with cost, which recieved a whopping ZERO in the poll as everyone said it was critical but not differentiating. John Vincent of Broadgate Consultants LTD guest blogged on Trust and Integrity.  The second lowest vote getter, “Expertise in new technologies”, is my focus today and I will call this blog post “Experts or Frauds?”

Two Key Initial Thoughts

1. We don’t always care if you’re an expert if we don’t know you

I receive hundreds of emails from vendors asking for a bit of my time to tell me how their ground breaking technology can enhance productivity, reduce costs, increase flexibility, and otherwise demonstrate value through an era where technology changes daily. But, how important is “expertise” when selecting a vendor partner? Do you really want the BEST person in a particular area of technology even if they know nothing about your business? According to my poll respondents, and several people with whom I spoke, the answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT. Thus, this was a very low vote getter in the poll.

2. It’s hard to validate who the true “experts” are

Even if you could get beyond the fact that someone you’ve never met wants you to spend millions, tech expertise is frankly hard to prove BEFORE an implementation. As Peter Shankmen noted in his 2009 article in the early days of Social Media, for most new technologies, “there is no endorsement or accreditation to set apart legitimate industry leaders from bandwagon opportunists.”[1] The fact is, technology changes so frequently expertise is hard to quantify, and therefore its hard to separate the experts from the pretenders.

At Aon, we implemented the Microsoft BPOS suite of collaboration tools for colleagues around the world. When we began to consider the initiative early in 2009, there were few companies of our scale and size that had completed a migration to the full suite. None of our vendors could clearly demonstrate they had roadmaps nor tried and tested strategies for implementing BPOS.

Vendor Relationship Tips for CIO/CTO – Expertise

I sought out a few experts who have been on both the provider and client side and asked their opinions. With their input, I’ve generated this list of tips on how to manage vendor relationships based on expertise.

1. Focus on relationships

The pace of change in technology is so great that experts are harder to find and harder to prove. When in doubt, I ALWAYS try to work with trusted partners first. If a firm has consistently proven trustworthy and competent, they are more likely to perform well again. While every problem is different, core aspects of problem solving are repeatable. A focus on relationships of trust and integrity takes away some of the risk before the first day of the project. That said, your “regular” firm may not have skills in the area in which they are needed.

A good partner firm will “buy” and “build” new expertise but admit when they should opt-out.

Slalom Consulting Managing Directors Nate Roberts explains that “There are times when you need to go external and ‘buy’ expertise to respond to a trend or regulation, but, as a growing organization, we want to develop / ‘build’ our own talent. What makes our organization attractive are the career development opportunities and the investment we make in our employees. We like to build internally, but will look externally when necessary.”

A trusted partner is willing to admit when they lack a certain skill. You as the client have the opportunity to either continue to work with the partner and find ways to augment their skillset or find a different partner with whom you are less familiar. If there is expertise within the firm, go for it. Law firms, for example, frequently have junior lawyers cover cases with “supervision” of senior attorneys. But you need to know that the expertise is strong enough to be a foundation.

“In today’s business climate,” Slalom’s Director – Organization Effectiveness Brian Tacik said, you need to hit the ground at cruising speed with the support necessary to be efficient, effective and more importantly without mistakes!” Several missteps in one of our major projects last year were caused by a vendor that frankly tried too hard to “learn on the job”. In the end, neither party of the relationship wins when there is no honest assessment of expertise, friend or not.

“If that mutual understanding isn’t there, more often than not, it will not be positive for the partnership or lead to success for the client,” said Tacik.

2. Make sure you understand what expertise you actually need

In hiring a consultant a consultant the key word is “hiring”, said Scott Abbey, Senior Advisor at Eleven Canterbury, LLC and former CTO at UBS AG. “The fact that it’s short term or project based really shouldn’t matter and I would expect to use similar criteria,” he said. Depending on the project, Abbey might value direct experience and expertise more or less than other criteria. For example, he referred to a benchmarking exercise where benchmarking expertise was critical but when hiring for an organizational strategy role, general management experience and a track record mattered more than specific organizational strategy expertise.

In planning a major implementation, ask yourself do you need expertise in the technology domain, knowledge of how to use that technology in your particular industry, general knowledge of the vendors that provide the technology or all of the above? Is it critical they know the base code or just how it has been used to solve business problems? Do you need them to be a “Gold Partner” of the relevant software firm or is it better they be independent?

Most importantly, you must know your particular strengths as a good partner will be complimentary to skills you have on-site. We had great technical and architecture resources on our team when we built our new global network, but we needed a partner that knew local country providers, emerging security concerns, and had the ability to implement global change programs. Choosing a partner that is only good at the things you are good at is a recipe for failure. Picture both of you eventually having to do a lot of “on the job training”.

According to Slalom’s Roberts, “Success is not driven only by technology implementation, but with the holistic solution.” Thus, companies should remember that expertise in a particular domain without sound fundamental skills simply does not work.

3. Do your research

The Slalom Perspective: To be an ‘expert’ requires years of practical experience that creates knowledge and skills that can be demonstrated readily to clients. Expertise also needs to include both tales of success and tales of overcoming adversity. Credentials and certifications only validate that someone has studied for and passed a test, frankly. Our clients are less interested in hearing about what someone read in a book or what cert exam was passed and more interested in hearing about similar experiences.

If you are using a reputable firm with a myriad of available resources, review the qualifications of the team put together specifically for your initiative. Have they published any articles or studies on the subject matter of your business? Have they completed similar projects of a like scale and complexity. Are there other people in the industry that regular cite them as experts? Do they offer personnel with the necessary certifications? The right person and firm will not only understand their domain but also have the ability to relate to you, at least at a high level, how your business problems can be solved using their particular technology.

I have worked with one large consulting firm before and had to swap out multiple resources. While the firm had strong resources in house, none of the true experts were assigned full time to our initiative and thus we got the “rookies.” Ask the firms for explicit commitments on resources. Who will be assigned to the project and how much of their time will be committed? Get a chance to meet a few of them face-to-face and test their individual knowledge.

Every project requires a mix of skills and balancing the strengths and weaknesses of the team members, according to Abbey. However, Abbey disdains dictating team members or subcontractors once you’ve qualified the vendor. “I never want to be in a situation where there is a problem and the consultant or vendor has an easy out by blaming my choice, “Abbey explained.

If the firm is not a known quantity, expect to do a little more due diligence. Expertise is best determined using a variety of means: credentials, focused interviews, reference checks, and general market research. All of these methods must be used as someone may be fantastic at selling you on their expertise despite having no real track record of success. Which leads me to the next point, very important today …

4. Look for obvious signs of fraud

In his article, Shankmen provided a list of ways to tell your social media expert was not really an expert. The first two are applicable to ANY new technology in my opinion.

– They call themselves an evangelist, guru or expert, and no one else does.

– They use “expert” or “evangelist” or “guru” or our personal favorite, “influencer” as any of their user names

“Calling yourself ‘visionary’ is akin to saying, ‘I’m so attractive!’, tweeted Lew Cirne of New Relic, as it “may be best left to others to say.”

I am truly amazed at how many self-appointed gurus abound on Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn and other such sites. There are THOUSANDS of social-media experts on Twitter that have relatively few followers. Can they truly be called experts if they can’t build their own following? What is even more interesting is when you click through to their bio and see they really have no practical experience succeeding (or failing) in the space. An expert in BPOS (nee Office 365) that has never experienced the joys and pains of a global implementation is really not an expert.

Robert Caruso, CEO/Founder of Bundle Post, responded to my questions about expertise and suggested that within social media, there is really no such thing as an expert. “The medium is moving so fast and changing every single second,” Caruso said, and thus “it is impossible to be an expert.” Furthermore, he added, “Credentials do not matter. What have you done, what are your results are all that matter. If they can’t do it for themselves, how can anyone reasonably expect they can do it for or consult you to do it for [your firm]?”

You should check out Robert’s blog on what he calls Faux Experts and the resulting attention it got.

5. Ask the vendor to “invest” in and take on risk within the initiative

How can a vendor convince me to work with them in the implementation of something that is so new that few people actually have experience? They can absorb some (or most) of the implementation risk. If they have other skills that are valuable and more known quantities, they can include those resources at a reduced charge. New technology should be an investment for both the client and the partner and firms such as Slalom are willing to price programs in such a way as to demonstrate this shared investment.

My experience both on the client side and provider side of major projects is that getting the vendor partner to take risk will be somewhat limited but critical. The newer the technology and the smaller the firm, the more difficult it will be for them to take risk. On the flipside, your bargaining power is greater with the smaller guys that depend more on each dollar of revenue. It’s usually impossible to get vendors to commit to any risk beyond their billings, according to Abbey. At a minimum, a strong incentive for performance to commitments is a payment schedule tied to successful completion of specific, defined deliverables with pre-agreed acceptance criteria.

Which is Most Important?

All five of the characteristics are important!! Critical!! The perfect vendor should have all five of the characteristics, but in the era where there is a new technology, a new tool, some new social media outlet popping up every day, which would YOU put FIRST? I would love to hear from you! Send me a tweet or post your comments below.

In relationship,

Adam

Vendor Relationship Series –

“Trust – Guest blog by John Vincent of Broadgate Consultants” | “Have you MET the CFO? | “Experts or Frauds?”


[1] Is your social media expert really an expert? | Peter Shankman – http://bit.ly/mVFXCZ

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