Building the right fit

The business climate, client demands and competitors are all moving faster than ever, and companies often find that when it comes time to implement new technology, you can no longer go it alone.

That means companies looking at implementing new technology may also be looking for partners. But finding a helpmate can be tricky. Below are details of three Canadian companies which made partnerships work for them.

Reaching out

Mississauga, Ont.-based Panasonic Canada Inc. knew an extranet could be a great way to reach its approximately 1,000 Canadian service partner companies.

“We saw that an Internet-time solution would suit the requirement we had,” said Doug Wigmore, Panasonic’s director of management information systems.

Panasonic wanted to speed and improve service while lowering cost, and for that help would be required. Panasonic selected Toronto’s Sage Information Consultants Inc. “In terms of a technology partner, this was pretty damn close to ideal,” Wigmore said. “It’s very much a team prototyping approach with a very fast delivery cycle.”

Wigmore’s approach to finding a technology partner (often called a value-added reseller – VAR) is to look for a firm with both technical and business expertise. That means while the VAR’s staff needs to be technically knowledgeable, they also need to “speak the same language” as the business users, he said. “The business user doesn’t give a damn about the underlying technology, so it’s [the VAR’s] job to make it go away.”

Moreover, Wigmore recommends looking for some assurance the same VAR employees will be regularly committed to the customer’s project. “It should be consistent, so it’s not a different person all the time.” For instance, Panasonic has access to one “prime day-to-day person” at Sage – chief ebusiness architect Craig McQueen – who organizes other Sage help as needed. He also talks with Panasonic staff and even some of the service companies that use the extranet.

Panasonic’s extranet, called AAA, is based on a Windows NT deployment and Microsoft Exchange, McQueen said. “It’s a B2B solution and it really improves the communication between Panasonic and its service partners.” Previously, communication was carried by fax and phone, but the intranet makes dealings much quicker, he said.

The extranet was initially launched about a year ago, although it has just recently been rolled out across the company’s entire base of Canadian service partners. Users can place orders and enter data directly into Panasonic’s systems, said Tony Eustis, Panasonic Canada’s service manager. Then the service companies can check the status of their order, and see what’s been “allocated, picked and shipped.” They also have access to a technical tips database.

Panasonic has about 25 to 30 internal IS people, supporting about 650 employees across the country. “But when you start this extending-the-enterprise thing, how many users we have starts to be nebulous,” Wigmore said.

The equivalent of about 2.5 Sage employees assist with the extranet work. McQueen said he’s always keen to see Panasonic staff handle the technology once it’s implemented. “The client understands their business better,” he said.

But as Panasonic undertakes further development, McQueen said he’s confident Panasonic will continue to turn to Sage experts for help. Of note, the company isn’t just working on the current phase of the project; rather Panasonic is looking ahead to what will be required in future iterations.

By dividing development into phases, features can get to users “as quickly as possible…so they can start getting value quicker,” McQueen said.

He said Panasonic gave him a “very clear idea of what they wanted to offer with the extranet. That made my job a lot easier.” And he said a clear understanding helped the partners “focus on the same things. This is probably the best working relationship with a client I’ve ever had.”

Seeking Specialized Skills

Over at Toronto’s Trimark Investment Management Inc., the mutual funds company was looking to access some Lotus Notes expertise, said Victor Figueiredo, chief knowledge officer. And he said a strong VAR partner relationship ties in well with Trimark’s overall strategy of “looking for long-term, solid investments.”

Trimark staff knew Toronto-based United System Solutions Inc. by reputation, and Figueiredo and other Trimark employees had encountered the VAR in various work scenarios during previous jobs. Trimark called up United System Solutions, which then sent over a vice-president to talk, “and the rest is history. We were looking for a long-term relationship with somebody to use as a partner,” Figueiredo said.

“We were trying to move employee data onto the Web. There were some elegant things we wanted to do and we needed some help.”

The resulting intranet is a means for the corporation to hook up dozens of disparate systems into one corporate portal, including payroll, sales portfolio management and handbooks. “It’s very much a collaborative tool. The interface and how people interact with that tool had to be very specific and elegant,” Figueiredo said.

The two companies have now been working together for about a year on

various projects, including an operations intranet for the organization, said

John Thomson, executive vice-president, consulting services for United System Solutions Inc. in Toronto. That started with an intranet-based salary review system. Previously, the process of reviewing salaries within the organization could take months. “It was long and ended up being quite fragmented. There were miscommunications and problems.”

Now, the intranet solution allows for a group workflow environment, he said. Likewise, the company helped develop a handbook system, to ease the on-line publishing of corporate documents. “It’s content creation for the Web in a shared space,” Figueiredo said, noting the system makes use of Lotus Notes and Domino.

Groupware expertise is rather unusual, he said, because it “requires a lot of understanding of the GUI interface and how people behave with the technology experience. We needed a partner who understands that.”

“One of our key successes is stressing the sense of partnership and strategizing and being willing to try things out,” Thomson said. In comparison, some other companies will just contract for a very specific solution, saying: “Here’s what we want, go build it and come back when it’s finished.” But in this case, “the client and the VAR work together at the table as real partners.”

Thomson recommends working with a VAR that can provide a range of functionality, from graphics to project manager to usability testing. And once again, the VAR should be prepared to help transfer knowledge to internal staff. “Trimark has made a concentrated effort to own the knowledge, to maintain the solution and know how to make it work,” Thomson said. While United System Solutions employees build the solution, they also work with internal employees so Trimark can take over the maintenance of that technology. That’s for the best, said Thomson, “because we can’t be as responsive as someone in-house. We’ve been very keen on knowledge transfers.”

About 160 internal IT people support a staff of 850 to 900 Trimark employees.

And for United System Solutions, Trimark has “kept a minimum of two people busy for at least a year,” Thomson said. Moreover, the Trimark relationship and experience has spawned at least another half-dozen contracts in the past year with other companies. Thomson expects to have regular, on-going work with Trimark. “No successful business is static. You have to continue growing and adopting and taking advantage of new technologies. They depend on us and look at us as part of their strategy.”

Should companies expect their relationships with VARs to always be perfect? No, Thomson said, but the companies should be willing to work closely to quickly resolve problems that do arise.

Figueiredo said, “It’s important know the salesperson is not the one you’ll be working with.” He recommends meeting the people who will actually be doing the work, not just the VAR’s representatives.

“Personality is very important. You need a professional relationship, but also need to be at a gut-comfort level with each other as well.”

ERP Expertise on tap Inc., a Toronto-based provider of IT and engineering recruiting, project outsourcing, technical training and skills management technology looked outside when it decided to replace QuickBooks with a heftier back-office accounting system, said CEO Declan French.

The company decided to work with Toronto’s Charon Systems Inc. because of the VARs reputation and its expertise with the Navision ERP system, French said. “They had a reputation for being one of the best around in terms of training and customer support.” He said the company was also known for not giving up when solutions were needed to tough problems.

“Our role is to help them use the technology to meet their business requirements,” said Charon president David Fung.

Making it more interesting, Charon has recently been acquired by Calgary-based application service provider (ASP) FutureLink. “Moving forward, companies in the new economy require a technology solutions provider that can grow with them,” Fung said. Charon will soon host both Navision and Thinkpath’s own proprietary staffing database, which are accessible to staff via a Web browser. About 100 client companies also access the database.

“Really decide in advance what it is you want, and then communicate that clearly,” French said.

Meanwhile, in true partnership mode, Thinkpath is now handling Charon’s staffing issues. “They’re finding IT staff for us, and we’re taking care of their technology,” Fung said. “That’s how business works.”

Casselman is a Calgary-based journalist who specializes in technology and business reporting. Her Web site is at


Research your potential partners well

If your company is considering work with a technology partner, make sure the firm has a good reputation in the market-place, said Bob Pritchard, president of Kingston, Ont.-based management consulting firm R.J. Pritchard & Associates. “Clearly, experience and reputation in the field are critical things. You really do want people who have done the work before. You don’t want them to learn at your expense.”

He also stressed the importance of good interpersonal relationships. “Do you like dealing with them?”

The best working relationships between corporations and VARs are “really run as a true partnership,” where senior executives work with the VARs during systems design. “The customer should have a really clear view of the customer and really leave the technology to the VAR.” However, the corporation should still be involved in understanding the process, decisions and tradeoffs of each potential technology.

And he said corporations should be encouraging their VAR partners to use “best of breed” products and then integrate those, rather than simply looking for so-called turnkey products.”

What is a VAR?

VAR is a common acronym for “value-added reseller.” Some organizations use the term generally to describe any sort of technology partner that isn’t purely a hardware or software manufacturer or developer.

However, one pundit’s VAR is another’s channel player, system integrator, network integrator, business partner, independent software developer or even consultant.

Don’t get hung up on the terminology. The important factor is to determine your company’s requirements for help, and compare them against what potential partners have to offer. Remember, “A rose by any other name…”