Vendor partnerships — no thank you, sometimes

Given the overwhelming volume of noise (dare I call it propaganda?) over the last few years about the “strength of partnerships” and the “power of the partnership model” you’d think that any us would be risking eternal damnation if we weren’t viscerally attached to the idea of seeking out/ working with/depending on these blessed “partnerships” with IT vendors.

Partnership: it’s a word that’s been so overused that’s its become wrung out and practically meaningless. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that every second vendor I met for lunch last year told me they wanted to “partner” with my organization, very often before the salad had arrived.

Maybe I’m a little gun shy, but for me there are a whole number of steps on the road to a true partnership. They are, in no particular order, a demonstration of competence by both parties, a proven ability to deliver solid evidence of cultural compatibility, a record of reliability on both parts, a reservoir of trust, and an alignment of the objectives. Those steps have to be taken before I’ll consider marrying up with a vendor for an extended period of time.

On my darkest and most paranoid days, I imagine that someone’s told the entire IT vendor community that the word ‘partnership’ is the ’90s equivalent of ‘Open sesame’ — if you say it often enough, the door to the corporate treasury will fly open. I never did care for fairy tales.

Like most good ideas that the popular press gets hold of, the genuine virtues of a symbiotic partnership, the complex, contextual and conditional strengths of the partnership concept, have been dumbed down to an easily-digestible five syllable message: “Partnership is good.” If it was that simple, one episode of Sesame Street would tell us everything we needed to know.

OK, enough ranting: what to do about it? I suggest we start the year on a contrarian note — next time a vendor suggests that your client organization “partner” with the vendor, ask your potential ally one simple question: Why should we?

Beware if you don’t get a clear, well-thought out and well-articulated answer on the spot.

To the vendors out there who understand what it really takes to build a mutually-profitable partnership, a tip of the hat and an apology for the generalizations. To those vendors whose idea of “partnership” is an arrangement where you simply get unlimited and exclusive access to the client’s IT budget funds, may your hair fall out the next time you mention the “P” word.

Next time, partnership’s evil twin: teamwork.

Hanley is an IS professional living in Calgary. He can be reached at