CIO seeks happy relationship

Dear CIO Canada,
My relationships never seem to work out. My partners keep promising me things but they often don’t deliver. When I ask them why, they try to put the blame on me. On top of that, they’re never on time and they’re always asking me for more money. Is there anything I can do to change my luck? Stressed Out in ITland

Dear Stressed Out,
Sometimes it’s hard for CIOs to find true happiness with their IT consulting partners. But don’t give up hope just yet. We were so moved by your plight that we asked several Canadian IT execs for their advice on what it takes to make the consulting relationship a blissful one. Read on and you may yet find your Mr. Right & Associates…

Yes IT consulting relationships can certainly have their ups and downs. But the good news is, there’s a lot you can do to make sure you put your consulting engagements on the right track. Here’s a briefcase full of tips from some Canadian IT execs who’ve been there, done that, and have the PowerPoint slides to prove it.

We’ll start with Fred Grigsby, a senior vice-president and CIO at Montreal-based Canadian National Railway. Mr. Grigsby is nothing if not a pragmatist when it comes to consulting relationships. “I tend to say that with project management, only the paranoid survive,” he says.

“There’s no panacea here,” he adds. “Every project will have its issues and unexpected events.” A large portion of success is just taking care of business day in and day out, and trying to make sure the situation is identified as it happens.

“We don’t start the process, walk away and hope. We monitor very closely and try to coach situations where there are problems.”

Starting on the right foot

If you want to put your relationship on the road to success, you have to start early. It begins with clearly defined business objectives and a detailed strategy of how IT will serve that vision.

Before any consulting happens, a business must really know what it’s looking for, and understand the scope and magnitude of the work that’s required, says Andrew Wnek, senior vice-president and CIO at Canadian Tire Corp. “You have to be very clear with that and you can’t waver, because that’s where people get themselves into a lot of trouble and end up spending a lot more money than they planned. Because the reality of the situation is they can do everything for you, and they will.”

Grigsby says business ownership of the IT project is critical, and should include strong leadership roles for the CFO or strategic planning executive. “It cannot be a technology project. You have to understand what you’re trying to do with the business. We put strong leadership in, and we look for strong leadership to help us from our supplier. But fundamentally we run the project and we stay tight with it.”

It also helps that the consulting team fully understands what those business goals are, and exactly how they’ll be achieved. It’s all in the details, and these must be articulated specifically and monitored constantly.

The project requires regular joint team meetings and strong relationship management, says Valerie Adamo, vice-president and CIO of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board of Ontario.

“If you have a well thought-out and documented contract, then you never have to look at it because you both understand very well the tasks at hand.”

The statement of work must be clear on deliverables, but consultants shouldn’t be left to their own devices, she says. An organization cannot afford to give away its accountability for the outcome. “Don’t let their focus drift from the task at hand and the deliverables. Ask to see interim deliverables.”

Keeping control of the project

At the same time, businesses shouldn’t have to assume all the risk, says Grant Schwartz, senior vice-president, IT and Office Services, for Katz Group Canada Ltd.

Advice to consulting firms

We asked six Canadian CIOs to offer their best nugget of advice to consulting firms for a better working relationship. Here’s what they said:

“Don’t let them manage the project – you must control the project – but the vendor must have skin in the game. Never accept the statement of work at face value. Challenge it.”

Schwartz says the consulting company’s statement of work should show some flexibility in terms of sharing responsibilities and both parties must have clearly defined and agreed to the objectives, milestones and deliverables.

It’s also critical to establish a key conduit within the firm, adds Wnek.

“One of my great experiences is to watch consultants come into a company and then latch onto various different people. Where one assignment has been started and makes sense, they start going into other areas and start building their presence in the company.”

Wnek says having one focal individual responsible for the relationship gives the organization a level of control that’s critical. It helps to ensure quality, he says, and that they’re really working on the areas where they have the expertise and the knowledge.

“Try to focus them on clear change delivery, and not ambiguous strategy development and document production,” says Matthew Anderson, vice-president and CIO of the University Health Network. “Get clarity up front on expectations and don’t allow scope creep.”

Understanding the human component

Anderson says another important factor to consider is staff management. The staff that consultants are reporting to must understand how to get the most out of a consultant. He notes that more junior staff will tend to over-manage them, for example.

Consulting is about people, and the relationship should never be taken for granted, says Wnek.

Organizations should continually be reappraising their consultants’ value to the business, and this means looking at the people on the account, making sure they’re best, and that they’re bringing the best ideas.

“You have to be vigilant,” he says, “because if you don’t, things can go wrong.”

Joanne Kerr, CIO of Canadian Satellite Radio Inc. (XM Canada), says she looks at the relationship as a symbiotic partnership. “I don’t treat them as a vendor; I treat them like they’re a part of our company.”

Kerr says the way she sees it, one cannot succeed without the other. What matters most are the calibre of people, their core competency and understanding each other’s strengths and needs.

And it’s not always about giving you what you want, she adds. Consulting firms have to be willing to stick their neck out and take some risks.

“I know what I need; I want to see if they know what I need. Consultants shouldn’t be afraid to tell you you’re going on the wrong path,” says Kerr. “We won’t always agree: sometimes you have to push and discuss and debate. But as long you articulate the issues, you’ll come to something that you can all live with.”

Wnek says he does a lot to help his consultants understand his business needs, and he expects the same from them. “We’re really very intolerant if we’re not getting what we think are their highest-quality individuals. They do have to make the effort of really understanding your business and your company.”

Building the relationship

The Canadian Tire executive points to the company’s annual IT vendor conference, where they’ll discuss their corporate strategy and IT priorities for the next three to five years, and share experiences among vendors.

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