Keynote Presentation: Vendor Or Partner?

Deciding what you need and getting it.
Keynote Presentation: Vendor Or Partner?

Every business has needs. In the information technology world, those needs often revolve around finding a better product, such as software and hardware. As technology consumers, we seek out vendors with the latest, greatest product, and most of our analysis focuses on what the product can do for our business. What often is left unexplored is what the vendor can do for our business, and in return what we can offer. Why not foster opportunity by making vendors true partners?

The light bulb started to come on for me back in 2008—before I assumed the role of CIO—when Park Nicollet Health Services committed to replacing its electronic medical records (EMR) with a vastly enhanced system. I was asked to lead the implementation program. The vendor of choice was a fast-growing company, known nationwide for its rapid research and development of EMR software. When representatives from the vendor arrived to meet with us, it quickly became clear their approach to working together was different from anything we had experienced in the past. They laid out how they would provide feedback on the work of our teams and the leadership of the implementation. It was a bit of a shock to think a vendor would be evaluating us. But what they said next turned my initial apprehension into excitement. They wanted to learn from us as well. We discussed openly our expectations of each other, not just in product performance, but in terms of management, knowledge building, strategy development, and lessons learned. It was clear this vendor was asking to be a partner in our success. And that resonated deeply with my values as a leader. 

From that moment on, I began to see a pattern in the relationships with our vendors. I took over as CIO at Park Nicollet in May 2009. At that time, Park Nicollet had an IT portfolio of more than 400 applications. When the announcement was made of my new leadership role, my phone began ringing with calls from vendors wanting to meet and discuss opportunities. To boost my knowledge, I began to meet with key vendors. I discovered three types of approaches: 

•   The vendor who comes in saying, “Let me tell you about my product and company, what we can do for you, and what you should buy.” 

•   Different, but still vendor-centric, they  say, “Tell me about Park Nicollet and Julie, and I’ll tell you what we have to offer.” 

•   An approach that immediately stands out: Vendors who embrace opportunity by saying, “This is how we have worked with Park Nicollet in the past. But how do you want to work together in the future?” 

From the initial meeting, each vendor was defining just how far the relationship would go. It gave me pause to evaluate if these vendors were the right ones, regardless of whether their product was a good fit. In some cases, it was OK. The straightforward, traditional vendor-client relationship was fine: We need this, you have it, we’ll buy it, and that’s all we need. But in other cases, the lack of depth could prove to be a risk, especially if the product or service is critical to the success of our business. A clear example of a critical vendor relationship came about for Park Nicollet in late 2009.

An unfortunate collision of events forced Park Nicollet to replace its entire telephone and communications infrastructure. The vendor for all of our phone systems declared bankruptcy, there was risk the hardware and products would not be supported, and at the time we were only 50 percent through implementing what we thought would be our new system. We had to act fast. Telephones and telecom functionality are vital to our business. 

Going into the vendor selection process, I knew this relationship would be critical to our business success. As the vendors came in, we asked them to define what our working relationship would look like, how we would share accountability, where opportunities were to help each other grow, and what would foster success. The differences in responses made our selection easy. The company we chose demonstrated that what we were asking was already part of its culture. The vendor team asked to be our partner and stressed that they would share the responsibility for our successes and failures. And in turn, we would provide them insight into the health care world, offer improvement ideas and feedback, and help them uncover new growth opportunities.

Since then, I have taken this approach with other key vendors and asked that our business relationship change into a partnership. It doesn’t always work. I have been met with resistance and also misinterpretation. Some vendors viewed my request as an opportunity to sell us anything. In those situations, I had to take more assertive steps, such as refusal to renew contracts unless certain expectations were met. But in other instances, my efforts have been met with excitement.

As information technology leaders, we are empowered to change the dynamic of our key vendor relationships and we should. There will always be the “next best thing” in technology, but the human element will be what drives it to success. And part of that comes from how vendors and clients can support each other and the people using it. I truly believe there is comfort in knowing that together you will celebrate successes, weather failures, create solutions, and do great things.