Working with External Partners? Managing Collaboration from Start to Finish
Over the last two years, many businesses have been forced to change their business development strategies into survival plans. That always means drastic changes to the IT Services the IT function offers to the business. Often the strategy is a move to cloud-based systems supporting an e-commerce environment because their bricks and mortar outlets have closed, or at least seen drastic drops in foot traffic.
IT Services have two major challenges, that of keeping the existing systems running, and at the same time implementing the new systems dictated by the survival strategy. All under the cloud of a seriously constrained IT Budget.
A common strategy is to use outsourcing to move capital expenditure to operational expenditure and ease the pressure on budgets. It can also release pressure on internal resources, allowing them to be retrained in the new skills and techniques needed for the new environment, and removing the need to hire expensive additional resources.
Whether the outsourcing is to hand over the current operating environment or to use external resources to do the implementation, it means collaborating with external partners for perhaps the first time.
The first step in the collaboration process is to define what is needed in the form of a requirements specification, in effect a business analysis setting out a specification of the new systems and the changes to the existing systems. This will be a company-wide document, not just IT since IT must reflect and support the changes to business operations. Having a precise requirements specification will ease establishing the collaboration and remove potential conflicts down the line. In effect, setting the goalposts.
The next step is to find a preferred supplier of outsourced services. This can be done by issuing a general Invitation to Tender and evaluating responses or asking known potential suppliers to provide quotations.
Often the criteria in the business analysis are broken down into three categories, mandatory, desirable and nice-to-have. This allows an apples for apples comparison of the various proposals.
However it is done, the end result will be a preferred supplier and a backup. It is now that the real evaluation will start.
Selection of a partner is more than just picking someone who ticks all the boxes on the evaluation form. In all likelihood, the relationship with the partner will last for some time, and it needs to be a cultural fit, not just a technical fit. The key is the word partner, which means a lot more than just someone who supplies technical expertise.
The final step in the selection process is creating a formal agreement with the preferred supplier. If they are only supplying technical skills, this will be a formal statement of the scope of work to be undertaken and the project timetable expressed as tasks, responsibilities and milestones.
If the preferred supplier is providing other services, for example, full outsourcing of the existing or new systems, or some systems management services, then these again need to be defined in a formal agreement, usually in the form of a Service Level Agreement (“SLA”).
The SLA sets out the scope of the services to be provided, who is responsible for what, the service levels expected and any penalties for underperformance.
Over time, there is a tendency for the collaboration partner to become part of the brickwork, and adherence to SLA provisions falls away. A regular programme of formal management meetings is essential to maintain a focus on the work being carried out jointly.
As stated above, this is not a one-off arrangement, working with a collaboration partner over an extended period has serious implications, particularly that of cultural fit.
The period following the selection of the preferred supplier is one where the project definitions or SLA are worked out. This gives an opportunity to assess the degree of fit with the preferred supplier and define the business relationship. If there are any sticking points, they need to be resolved, and if they cannot be resolved, walk away, and move on to the backup supplier.
It cannot be over-emphasised that the most important part of selecting a collaboration partner is having a good fit between the two organisations. not the technical expertise they bring. When things go wrong, having a good fit means you can turn to them with confidence that they can be resolved quickly and without fuss.