Howdy, partner!

It used to be that business could be carried out effectively and efficiently simply by keeping the process contained within your company’s own four walls. Today, however, with highly complex IT systems having assumed such a large role in the carrying out of that business, outside partners with specific areas of expertise are often brought in to ensure no part of the process goes awry.

The practice of partnering, however, is a fine art not to be taken lightly by those engaging in it. This is no off-the-shelf process — to do it right, and to reap the benefits that synching up is supposed to bring to a business, care must be taken to ensure the fit will be a good one with a company’s culture, corporate philosophy and mode of operations.

The first question a company’s executives must ask themselves before going down this path, according to University of Waterloo PhD student Rakinder Sembhi, is why do we want to partner in the first place? To Sembhi, the answer is usually associated with two primary motivations: to outsource and to do something never before carried out by one’s own outfit.

“I outsource because I have a non-strategic function and I want to reduce cost or risk, so I give that to someone else. I do this not because it’s too difficult but because it’s not strategic and I can probably get it done cheaper and potentially more reliably by giving it to someone else,” he says.

Strategic partnering, Sembhi adds, is often carried out when a company needs outside expertise that it has never possessed. If I have a new system that needs to be implemented, my organization may not have expertise in the technology or processes that it takes to get it implemented. In that case, I’m looking for more of a strategic partner, someone who has done it before and has the people and tools to get it done.”

Once the decision to partner is made, firms must ensure that expectations are clearly mapped out before anything gets off the ground. Decision makers must be realistic about what can and can’t be carried out, Sembhi says.

“If you know you are not going to be able to deliver something, that needs to be communicated early, and if you have risks or issues, they have to be communicated early or else you’re going to be in that situation where you’ve burned through $10 million and you’re still not where you need to be.”

Another important factor is making sure the right people are in place to do the job effectively, Sembhi adds.

“One of the key things is to look for people who have been on both sides of the fence in other places and have done [the particular type of work] well. Because this whole concept of vendor relationship management is such a people-intensive process, you’re only as good as the people you bring in. Someone who has that personality — the ability to get along with other people — those people can excel in these types of situations.”

According to Michael Sheppard, another University of Waterloo PhD student who has extensive experience as a consultant and project manager in the IT industry, the art of partnering is today taken much more seriously than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

“I’m sensing that there is a lot more thought going into it, in terms of the cost-benefit analysis about doing it in-house or outsourcing,” Sheppard says. “I’ve seen a lot more thought in these areas and more at the upper levels, because IT has become less of a backroom matter. The amount of money and risk is enormous.”

Sheppard believes the practice of partnering will only grow in importance.

“My sense is that the expectations of software are becoming greater and the tolerance for software failures are becoming less,” he says. “It becomes more difficult to serve your internal clients, therefore, without resorting to partner relationships.”

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