The IT Valentine's party

Passions can run high in the business/IT/supplier ménage à trois, writes Julia Vowler

Passions can run high in the business/IT/supplier ménage à trois, writes Julia Vowler

The party's hot and there's loads of action. Scoring should be a piece of cake. But who is the best to chat up?

At the IT Valentine's party it is the suppliers who are on the prowl, the business units that are the prey, and the IT departments who are left standing like wallflowers on the sidelines.

Everyone knows of the scenario where the managing director enthuses wildly about the new system that some brilliant chappie from Silicon Valley - "They know a thing or two about computers out there, Bob!" - was telling him all about coming over on the red-eye.

Everyone also knows exactly why suppliers like to target the business managers directly - they're the new lad's equivalent of the dumb blonde. For "Our software package could really impact your bottom line," read "I really go for intelligent women - honest".

The popular conception is that business users are an easy conquest. In this scenario, the last thing the suppliers want is the IT department butting in like the dumb blonde's elderly chaperone.

But is this cliché fair?

It is certainly true that the very nature of IT means that there are two customers for every product or service - the business and the IT department. It is also true that there can be inherent tensions between the two, especially when it is a case of a specific business department wanting immediate, particular and local benefits, while the IT department has to look at the fit within the context of the company as a whole. Add a layer of ego-based struggle for control and supremacy between rival intra-corporate empires, and the tensions can soar.

At this point, the one with the short straw can turn out to be the supplier, caught in the cross-fire of a political in-fight.

The business/IT/supplier triangle is certainly "something that comes up frequently", agrees Tony Lewis, executive director of the Computing Services and Software Association.

The association does not lay down guidelines for its members to follow in respect of their bipartite relationships with their customers, because, says Lewis, each company has its own selling process, and that depends very much on what is being sold.

Suppliers of outsourcing services, for example, inevitably have to target business users at the highest level. Outsourcing corporate IT is a board-level decision. As a general rule, the more strategic, rather than tactical, a solution being sold, the higher up the chain it is pitched.

Even so, says Lewis, to defuse potential tension from the IT department feeling that it is a passive victim of high-level decisions, it is best to have IT representation on the board in the first place.

Suppliers like IT on the board too.

"It's so they don't feel they have to escalate to get a sensible decision," Lewis points out.

But he agrees that suppliers like to do business with the business as well as with the IT department.

"Most sales people like to have contact with the signatory on the contract - the person with the final say so," he says.

One reason suppliers like to target business users, however, is because the IT department can sometimes be stubborn about changing or introducing new technology for non-technical reasons, says Dave Roberts, practice leader of IT sales training company On Target.

But in an era where product differentiation is eroding, suppliers need to differentiate by what they like to call adding value, but which to the IT department can look like encroaching on its territory. If anyone is going to provide the skill set to maximise return on investment from a new product, it is going to be the IT department, not overpriced supplier labour, runs this argument.

"The IT department think they add value internally - some believe their role is being usurped," warns Roberts.

For all that, bypassing the IT department is not on, he says. "We don't support going around the IT department," says Roberts. "We advise co-operation, not combativeness."

When it comes to assessing a supplier's pitch to the business, the role of IT "should be to be sceptical, but not cynical".

In the end, of course, the only way the tug-of-love between the business and the IT department can be defused is for the IT department to get closer to its business departments and corporate strategy. IT departments need to be more responsive to business timescales, more knowledgeable about business drivers, and more understanding of its needs and problems.

In the end IT departments that don't want a tug of love between business units and suppliers may have to settle for a ménage à trois.

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