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3 Things to Consider When Vetting Strategic Partners

Big data, AI, and natural language processing, among other trends, are forcing business leaders to reinvent the way they think about what’s needed to stay relevant in the market. As enterprises embrace these changes, it’s important to stop and ask: Do you have the support needed to keep pace with the evolving demands of your IT department? Also, do you have access to the relevant expertise to ensure a strategic plan is forward-thinking enough?
In today’s world, IT leaders know that they need to rely on third parties to keep up with the information and services required to move their companies forward, but often partner relationships promise more than they deliver. Unfortunately, you can’t fully capture a successful business relationship in black and white statements of work (SOW) or contractual language.
As the founder of a small firm that has spent over 25 years providing technology expense management and related services to hundreds of companies of all sizes, we live by delivering on SOWs, but more is required to build strategic partnerships with clients. Any relationship that focuses solely on meeting what's outlined in a SOW falls short of delivering what’s needed to build a long-term relationship. Once you’ve identified third parties who can meet your technical requirements, it’s important to focus on the softer requirements of working together and the role they need to play for both parties to achieve success. Here are three questions to consider when vetting strategic partners:
1. What Does “Success” Look Like?
With traditional “lift and shift” outsourcing, the value is found typically in the lower service costs and equal or better quality. If quality metrics are met for the contracted price, then the relationship is considered successful, and value is delivered. However, with many IT services, results come from the collaboration between both parties. Some clients want deep collaboration with their experts to formulate solutions that drive business value, while others just want a subject matter expert to weigh in and augment their efforts.
As you discuss requirements with potential partners, be sure to identify the business drivers that are critical to the overall success and the specific roles that the partner will play in achieving that. For example, if you’re looking for an expert to assist in selecting and deploying a new unified communications technology solution, you need to articulate each parties’ responsibility for user training and adoption so the new technology will provide the intended business impact. Do you need the partner to stay engaged until an enterprise reaches a certain level of user adoption, or is it enough for them to perform specific tasks related to training and adoption? If you don’t talk about this upfront, you will likely end up with a set of tasks performed by your partner that may, or may not, provide the desired result.
2. Do We Understand Each Other?
When looking for expert advice or a third party to execute on a complex project, be sure to consider how well potential partners understand your unique situation and decision-making style. Without this understanding, the project will likely suffer when unforeseen business factors that impact the project are uncovered. A partner should be focused on your business success above all else and creatively address issues that arise, regardless of what’s in the SOW. For example, if the speed of a rollout is important due to an upcoming business event, a partner should know enough about the enterprise to respond appropriately. Do you prefer to cut corners to meet the timeline and keep costs in line? Would you rather spend more money to address the issue and keep the project timeline on track, or should priority locations be addressed in the roll out prior to the deadline while others happen later? A good partner should understand your business climate and decision-making criteria and provide the necessary information to make the best business decision. When considering strategic partners, ask yourself: Do they have a strong understanding of our broader needs, so they can act effectively when unforeseen circumstances arise?
3. Are We on the Same Team?
Does the outsourced team function like a third party, measuring success on SLAs or other concrete performance metrics in the SOW? If they do, the relationship is limited. The best relationships are where real trust is formed, and the third-party functions more like a direct report to the business owner. The SOW and related success metrics should be the minimum acceptable performance. In a strong relationship, a partner will be innovative in the ways that they deliver services. When there are gaps between a SOW and what the enterprise needs, they focus on filling that gap rather than obsess over what is or isn’t in the SOW. When trust is built, it’s easy to craft contractual agreements that are flexible enough to accommodate a win-win relationship; when it isn’t, your “partner” will likely focus more on meeting their internal management metrics as opposed to taking actions that will ensure your combined success.
To thrive in this ever-increasingly technology-dependent world, IT leaders need to leverage the support of carefully selected third parties who serve as strategic partners. Working together to build strong teams enables the success of all involved. A well-constructed contract is an important first step, but ultimately, it takes human connection and relationships to forge strong partnerships.

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"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.