Many of us remember when it was the norm for large enterprise organizations to develop and build internal IT everything. No matter what our line of business, we had to get smart when it came to IT. Like it or not, we all became IT shops. Fortunately, today we have more options. If your organization is in a business that is non-IT related, there can be a strong argument put forward in a business case to stop focusing business energy on trying to staff and manage an internal IT shop and to look to external vendors to do the job. Even in the case of having a strategic direction to house an internal IT shop, like it or not we all have to deal with an external IT vendor at some point in time.
A good part of my career has been spent managing projects, and subsequently managing vendor relationships. Some of these experiences have been awesome, some were so-so, and some were rather challenging. There are numerous articles on how to successfully manage vendor relationships, and even more on the right questions to ask vendors during the selection process. However, a new challenge that we are faced with is an external IT vendor that supports a virtual office and a remote work policy.
Everyone who has ever studied project management will know that one of the top reasons projects fail is poor communication. Even with all of the social media tools that are available to us today, we have become much worse at communication. So, the challenge in question is when a vendor exists in a virtual environment with their employees geographically dispersed. Having been forced to deal with the challenges we are unwittingly faced with when a vendor supports this strategy, the following are five questions that are now part of my template when evaluating vendors on behalf of my clientele.
1. Do they manage and support employee communication?
The scenario I recall that makes this my No. 1 question involved an external IT vendor that appointed a team of their subject matter experts to help get us to a large enterprise-wide implementation. Each individual was skilled and experienced in their specific subject matter area and they had no problem reminding us of just how skilled they were. The challenge was that they did not talk to each other. We found mission-critical errors in integrations that we had clearly communicated to their project manager. The problem was that the project manager did not hold daily scrums or even weekly project team meetings with their team. Each employee operated in a vacuum and it was left to us to recommunicate all information to each of them individually. Once we realized that this was the case, we made the necessary adjustments on our end and on we continued. However, it was quite clear that they really knew how to put the “I” in “team.” As part of vendor responses and evaluation criteria, it is now more important than ever to ensure that vendors have a strategy that doesn’t require the client to manage the vendor’s internal communication.
2. How do they support a collaborative workspace?
With so many powerful web-based tools, I don’t think it is unreasonable that the vendor embraces a collaborative workspace that all project resources can access. Project plans and task lists can then be viewed in real time to manage the work and to understand and produce status reports. In addition, access to a conference line and screen sharing are necessary. These are tools that will be utilized daily and there needs to be a strategy in place from the vendor.
3. How do they ensure the security of your data?
When working through a new implementation, it is pretty standard to have to supply the vendor with numerous files that will be used not only during configuration but also during the importing of historical data. Sending file attachments is no longer an acceptable practice. What do they have in place to ensure the secure transfer of your corporate information? In addition, where do they store it? I was once surprised by a vendor that allowed all of their employees to keep a copy of our private corporate data on their employee’s personal hard drives. We found out because one of them accidentally sent a very private file out to all of the project team members.
4. How much control do you have over travel expenses?
It is not unusual to engage a vendor that is located in a different jurisdiction. However, if the vendor address states a certain city, we might expect that any travel expenses to bring their employees onsite would be from that jurisdiction. This is no longer the case. Companies that support a virtual environment and remote work strategy could potentially have employees located around the globe. It is important to understand and budget for travel expenses in advance. Ensure that you understand how much control your organization will have over this. Another gotcha I had to deal with at one time was a situation in which we had discussed the vendor employee locations and had agreed to travel costs between that location and ours. Imagine our surprise when we received an expense report showing an amount four times our budget! When we addressed this with the vendor they indicated that while, yes, that employee was from the documented location, they just happened to be out of the country right before our project and we were therefore expected to pay for that flight. Crazy, right? In the end, the vendor did the right thing. But it was a painful process.
5. What is their SLA for technology issues with remote employees?
I have stories on this one that are too numerous and painful to mention. Overall, it is important for us to understand and to feel confident with regard to the service levels that remote employees receive. Should there be a technology issue with a remote employee whom we are working with, that technology issue should be dealt with as efficiently as if that employee were located in a corporate office. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case for many remote employees and it, therefore, becomes our problem as part of the project team. This is an issue that I believe we should all push vendors to address.
It’s time to rethink external IT vendor selection questions
It is no secret that vendors are profit-maximizing organizations and I’m quite sure we can all agree that as a subscriber of their tools and services we want them to be around for a very long time. As a representative of their client, I want to ensure the external IT vendor is compensated fairly while instilling confidence that they have made the necessary investment not only in their infrastructure but also in the management and support of that infrastructure. Overall, with the shift to virtual companies and remote work strategies, it is critical that we rethink the questions on which we base our vendor selection. It all starts with transparency and we need to ask the right questions to ensure we understand the vendor strategy and that it aligns with our expectations.
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