IT – supplier or partner?

I read Todd Biske for a balanced view of enterprise architecture and a particular focus on Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).   His recent post titled Is a competition model good for IT? got me thinking.  Todd wonders if the IT department should be a supplier to the business, and compete against outsourced providers and vendors, or be a “partner, not a supplier”.

Those of us in the blogosphere come from many backgrounds and we all have different roles to play.  My view on this topic is obviously influenced by my role as part of the vendor community but I hope that will not put you off hearing me out.

As a vendor or outsourced provider, I think one has to be both supplier and partner.  To keep the business community happy, we have to focus on aligning our tools/solutions/services with the business goals and giving the business exactly what it needs.  To do that, one has to stay close to the business people and understand them on a day to day basis.  This is the partnering element.

However, all businesses have limited amounts of cash (with the possible exception of Google), so value for money is supremely important.  In that sense we are a supplier who needs to constantly prove that we are adding value, either by reducing costs or increasing revenues.

In my experience it is in this second context that internal IT departments can fall into the trap of taking too arrogant a stance.  There is no divine right to expect the business to use your services.  One has to earn the right to that business, and keep earning it time and again.  And just when you think you’ve done something great, the business will dump on you and go and choose some outsourced provider – why?  Because the external provider considered both the needs (partner element) and the costs (supplier element).

I once worked for an enterprise where the IT function became known as the “can’t do” department.  No wonder then, that a massive outsourcing operation followed with IBM and BT taking most of the business.

IT departments must listen to their business customers (and I use the word customer deliberately).  If arrogance and complacency is allowed to settle in, then business people will start being unfaithful and look elsewhere.  This is a bad thing for the enterprise.  The correct time to outsource services or buy in a packaged solution is when the business and IT communities, having considered all options, decide that this is the best choice.  This may be because an external solution is cheaper to deliver than the incumbent IT dept can achieve, or because specific skills are not available in-house.  It’s really sad when IT is outsourced just because internal management skills are lacking.  But this is frequently the nub of the issue.

If I was a CIO in the enterprise, my focus would be to make sure we were both a partner and a supplier to our business customers.

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