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Debugging vendors

Debugging vendors

CIOs should try to keep a back-up option in mind in case a key supplier can't deliver on its promises. But the first step is talking out problems.

The Scenario You're in the middle of a major IT change that depends heavily on one supplier. Press reports keep surfacing about problems on a similar project that involves the same company. You have also noticed that key personnel at this vendor are becoming more likely to be busy whenever you try to contact them to discuss your program. What do you do?

Bill Robertson

IT manager, De Bortoli Wines

If this is an important project, you're in a position where these people are your partners and you have to treat them as such.

So the first thing you do is start some discussions. And if the people in functional roles in the project are avoiding calls, at that point you have to escalate it to management. It might be that the senior management committee at your organisation has to deal with their top executives.

The first stage is obviously having that conversation, because you have to explain your concerns and give them the right of reply. It may well be that it was a one-off situation, and that there are reasonable and honest reasons for the issues.

But let's assume that there is likely to be a problem, because the question itself implies it. Then what you have to do, obviously, is revisit your contingency plan, which of course you had already put in place.

If you didn't, just start it now. And the sorts of things to do are to evaluate in reality how important this project is, and look at what the implications are for the organisation. That will have an impact on what you decide to do.

You may decide there is no rush for the project and that you can re-work it. That is, slow it down to put resources into other projects - not kill it, but scale it back. And look at what the costs are to the organisation of doing that.

The other thing that you did as part of your contingency planning was, when you originally signed on to the project, you would've had a shortlist of potential suppliers. A lot of this will come down to whether the project is just service-based or has a product component as well.

If the company is the only supplier of the product, and it's the only item of its kind, then you have a bigger problem than if you did a shortlist of alternative products.

If the project is just for services, then have a look at exit clauses, at the alternatives you would have originally shortlisted. Re-visit your shortlist to see whether there are alternatives that can take it up.

The other issue to look at is how far through the project you are.

Let's assume that you believe in all probability that this is going to fail. This company, you know, is going to cause you grief. The cheapest time to abandon or re-work a project that is going to hit problems is now. Because the further you get through, the harder it's going to get and the more expensive it's going to become.

Terry Bohan

Technology services manager, Middletons

Information technology isn't always an Apollo 13, life-and-death situation, unless you work in the medical or people transport industries, but yours is still a critical business. It employs people with families, who rely on the systems you supply, people whose careers progress because they can get the job done ... and your key supplier that helps you is rapidly going south.

You've tried to call them, but they are unresponsive. Fortunately, you haven't thrown away the old proposals from the other bidders.

You go through the proposals one more time to find the next best option.

Because you broke the news of their initial loss of the contract in a mature and gentle way, leaving the door open for future business "as we expand"; because the contracts were settled for a short term; and because those contracts were reviewed by your lawyers and any golden handcuff clauses had been mitigated to the fullest extent, you can call on the second-placed vendor to see if they're still interested.

Fantastic! They had been hoping to get a call from you, because they were watching the industry press and reading between the lines. Sure they would love to help you out. You set up a meeting for early the next week, and put a call in to your lawyer friends to work out how to extricate your business from the first contract.

Like the bloke who was trained for the Apollo 13 mission, but didn't get picked, your second choice was able to come into play, saving the day.

At least in 1970 - Apollo 13's day - they returned your calls. *Sigh*, time for a beer.

Sonny Susilo

Information systems officer,

BDO Kendalls

Hearing continual bad press reports about a project involving one of your key suppliers is certainly worrying.

When they also hold the key that drives the success of your major IT project, then it's even worse.

However, before panicking unneces-sarily, it is best to obtain confirmation from dependable sources.

You may wish to contact the media to clarify whether a press report was produced independently before making direct contact with the senior management of the supplier and, if possible, establish contact with the vendor's other customers to discuss issues and obtain their point of view.

Often there are delays in getting a response from suppliers. Nevertheless, these confirmations are crucial, regardless of how much persistence or patience may be required to find out first-hand how relevant the issues/problems are that your supplier's other customers are facing.

When direct contact with senior management can be established, it is important to obtain an explanation for problems and determine that they were not caused by external factors irrelevant to the supplier. By all means, you need to raise your guard and learn from someone else's problems and avoid making the same ones.

Additionally, a scheduled reassessment to identify your position with respect to your project completion is required and availability of the supplier's key personnel should be re-affirmed as per your contract. Alternative local or global support personnel should be requested if the regular supplier's team was found to be inadequate. Another option is to train your in-house staff to the required level in order to maintain project continuance.

In the end, you want to be in a position where the completion of your project is not jeopardised while, if possible, preserving a good supplier-customer relationship. Remember that you may require the vendor's assistance over the project life.

MIS Magazine

© Fairfax Business Media

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