How to Support Informed Decision-Making about IT Vendors

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a vendor say, “I know the perfect solution, and I just happen to sell it!” I’d be a retired BA. Instead, I’m a practising BA and one of my responsibilities is to help businesses understand that not all vendors are all-seeing and all-knowing.

Nik Gebhard recently spoke about vendors who “seem to be inordinately skilled at pulling the wool over business’ eyes”. These vendors have great sales pitches and get companies to invest vast sums of money in technologies that may not be the right fit for their organisation. The vendor throws in some golf days, a few logo-emblazoned t-shirts and some fancy lunches and the next thing you know, the sales pitch has worked.

The Board Should Not Make the Decision

I appreciate that the above view is fairly cynical, but I’ve seen it happen enough times to not naively believe that all vendors are saints. They target the people in the business who can sign off costs. So the angle I want to explore is around when the decision to go with a specific vendor is made at a board level. Boards do not work in the detail; they are not “at the coal face”. When vendors are pitching their products to senior management, they are selling a concept, one which people in the detail will have to make work (which in principle is not a bad thing). But where a board is not accustomed to consulting downwards within their organisation, big problems are likely to occur; projects fail when the detailed truth is incompatible with the vendor’s version of reality.

Make It About the Journey

The board would have been told that the new system will solve all their problems. But if no consideration is given to the people using the system, then the same issues may still occur in the future; they will just manifest themselves in a different shape. We all know that garbage in gives us garbage out. No matter what technology is used, if it’s not used properly by the users the system will be deemed a failure.

In my experiences people are willing to change, as long as they are taken along for the journey. If employees have to change the way they work, they want to feel like they contributed to the change, that they were heard. If the board approves a vendor without proper engagement and the employees see the CIO, CFO and CEO all walking around in shiny new golf shirts on casual Friday, they will feel bitter. They will feel that the new system was thrust upon them because Joe Soap knew Frank Black at school and, invariably, the rumours around the corridor will be about how much kick-back was paid out.

A few years ago, Susan Penny Brown said in an interview with Laura Brandenburg that a project team can eliminate the majority of vendors based on the top 5 needs of the business and “begin to talk to the vendors that are a potential fit specifically about the more detailed requirements”. All too often the decision around which vendor to go with is decided in the boardroom based on a high level sales pitch. Vendor assessments cannot happen at this level – detailed analysis is required and employee buy-in needs to be created.

How to Support a More Informed Decision

A BA’s role is to ensure that the vendors’ sales pitches are evaluated thoroughly against the detailed truth. We need to guide the board (or whoever has their ear) to understand that what vendors say and show during their pitches has been carefully crafted to win the business, not to actually implement the system.

And once the vendor has been selected based on sound reasoning, one of the BA’s roles is to take the users along for the journey. Once a board approves a vendor’s IT system, the board starts to think about the next journey, the next big strategic initiative. They forget that the rest of their employees are only just climbing on board, or have even refused to buy a ticket.

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  1. Michelle Swoboda says

    This is a tiny line to walk when you are balancing the executive, the business and the vendor. Why is it only us who seems to see the full view? Who are not wooed by the shiny lights of a new product?
    Great article Ryan!

  2. * Do not buy products , buy relationships.
    * Let those relationships be lasting, instead of the ‘one night stand’ at the golf course.
    * Let suppliers be prepared to hop op the journey train and take some risks themselves.
    * Always work direct to the organization mission rather that derived goals
    * Work with partners rather than suppliers (equality in relationship)

    Problems solved !
    BA should refuse work which does not meet these criteria.
    (I know this is utopia, but it is good to work from utopia downwards and communicate about the concessions you do, than to look up in frustration)

  3. Curtis Michelson says

    Loved this article! The anecdotes are not farfetched at all. I agree that BAs are a frontline defense against the inevitable marketing / sales pitches. I think a cruder way to put it is: we’re the #1 bullshit detectors in the enterprise. Or we should be. And we do it objectively and fairly as you rightly point out, by vetting against real known business needs

  4. Years ago I went with some users to a demo of some new software. We quickly realised that it didn’t do half of the things our existing software did, including some major deal-breakers. When we got back to the office we found out they had invited one of the senior managers out to lunch – he came back raving about this fantastic new software we should be getting! Thankfully, we pointed out all of its failings, and he gave up easily (though he did enjoy his lunch).

    As a BA for an ISV, I would like to apologise for the promises made by the sales department. Our software is good (world-leading even), and users like it when they actually get to use it, but having to break their unrealistic expections always sucks.

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