Move Over RFP -- Make Way for the New Model

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These are not easy times for healthcare CIOs. On top of the dozens of other major projects on their slate, their aging PBXs that are ticking away are now ticking louder. And not the ticking of a fine-tuned machine, but the ticking of the clock as it begins the countdown to the great recycling center in the sky (better known as eBay).

In the old days (say a few years ago) you would hire a consultant to write an RFP, throw it on the street, rate the proposals (probably go with the cheapest), and move on. While that is a bit simplistic, this is pretty much how business has been done for decades. But things are changing fast and the old models are breaking down for two key reasons: manufacturer upheaval and evolving requirements.

The giants of the telecommunications business -- the companies that invented the industry and ruled the communications world for more than a century -- are pretty much all gone. While their technologies live on through other names and acquisitions, the companies themselves are no longer with us.

In research I pulled together with my colleague Beth English for the locknote presentation at the SCTC conference a few months ago, I calculated that the bedrock companies around the world that we are used to working with are out of business after an average company lifespan of 140 years.

The old healthcare players are no longer there; Nortel is long gone. Siemens, which lives on as Unify now owned by Atos, is going through reinvention and transition. Avaya (along with Nortel blue) has been a long-time standard in healthcare, but is now focusing on restructuring, spinoffs, and bankruptcy.

Mitel and Shoretel are potentially strong competitors in this space, though neither has a legacy of leadership in the healthcare vertical. (Yes, I know they are both very competitive in healthcare and have a lot of wins to prove it; but they aren't known as true market leaders.) At a recent Mitel consultant and analyst briefing, it was clear the company intends to push forward into healthcare, which is a good sign for an industry that needs new ideas and alternatives.

It will be interesting to see if the steady-as-she-goes NEC is able to grow in this market as well. Healthcare has always been an important vertical market to the company and it might very well be able to grow in this space.

As consultants, we must strongly encourage our clients to take a harder look at these players than they might have in the past, as the winning solutions may come from someone other than the traditionally strong healthcare manufacturers.

As for Cisco, it seems to be extremely well positioned to grow market share in the healthcare market as the aging PBXs begin to finally kick the bucket. Looking back, it's funny how many hospitals were initially afraid of Cisco when it entered the market with its "risky" VoIP products and had many telecom managers freaking out over concerns of security, reliability, and quality. Fast forward 10 years and now Cisco is the conservative play. It is a proven market leader, has tons of healthcare experience, is not going to be acquired any time soon, and isn't going through a bankruptcy. And while its long-term future will be determined by the bets it's placing today, Cisco is firmly positioned in the short term to be in a very strong position for years to come.

"But what about Microsoft?" you might be saying. "And how could you not be talking about the cloud?" The conservative culture pervasive in healthcare just leaves too many folks uncomfortable with less traditional offerings. And while this is often driven from a place of necessity, to flat out dismiss alternative offerings from the get-go is to potentially miss out on the best solutions. The truth is it's hard to justify something new when it is hard to find other comparable institutions that have made the jump and lived to tell the story.

In the past, requirements were fairly static, and the RFP process often focused on how many of the eight or so applications were needed and in what quantity. Again, a bit of an oversimplification, but not that far removed from reality.

Today, the requirements are much more complex, with some of the biggest items relating to integration with other systems. The rub here is that the requirements get to be so specific that it is hard to generalize them such that a generic RFP can be issued. I see us moving more and more away from a traditional RFP process and more toward a partner selection model where the details are ironed out after a direction is decided.

This can be a more labor intensive process, but it is significantly more strategic than the older paradigm. It can be much more focused on high-level objectives and improving business processes and less focused on comparing UC bundles and phone features.

The key will be who you have driving the decisions. Do your decision-makers have the real-world experience AND the big-picture vision to guide your business in the right direction? Do they approach the problem from a completely independent and unbiased perspective to objectively evaluate all available options? Do they have the time to dedicate to the processes of gathering requirements, researching alternatives, dreaming of the future, and hammering down a roadmap to move your organization forward?

I can't think of a more challenging time in my 22 years in the business, especially in healthcare. With the massive disruption in the industry, combined with the more complicated nature of requirements, there is the potential for colossal and costly mistakes. Yet, there is also the potential to really make meaningful change.

"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.