Go 'Glocal'

Old habits die hard, often for good reason. For years, I've been doing business at the local bicycle shop, even though two newer and bigger stores have opened downtown with better selection, lower prices and competent mechanics. My local guy knows me, my bikes and my riding habits. So, while I pay more and occasionally have to wait longer for service, I think it's worth it.

That's probably the attitude that IT staffers running operations outside of headquarters have about vendors. They know and trust their local resellers and consultants. When these vendors show up at the door, they're familiar with the infrastructure, the applications and the staff. They know the quirks and the work-arounds sprinkled throughout the IT operations and can avoid the problems these idiosyncrasies would cause for the uninitiated.

But if you run IT for a global company, letting every local shop buy whatever it wants from whomever it wants can be expensive, put your security at risk, create compatibility problems and undermine your company's competitiveness. Corporate IT standards, when properly enforced, aren't just a way for headquarters to flex its bureaucratic muscle; they add value to the company.

The key phrase in that last sentence, of course, is "when properly enforced." That's the tough part.

Kevin Roden, CIO at Iron Mountain in Boston, says his company, which has operations in the U.S., Canada, South America and Europe, strives for a balance between endemic IT needs and a broader corporate strategy.

For example, Iron Mountain establishes "certification standards" for technology and then lets the local IT folks choose suppliers that they're comfortable with, as long as they meet those standards. According to Roden, it's important "to give local staff autonomy, but not such that they diverge so much we couldn't pull it all together."

Christopher Lochhead, chief marketing officer at Mercury Interactive in Mountain View, Calif., calls Iron Mountain's approach "going glocal," combining the best of both IT worlds. But he warns that CIOs like Roden not only have to oversee vendor management for a distributed IT organization, they also need to keep tabs on their worldwide line-of-business (LOB) managers. These heads of various business units are likely to pay lip service to global standards in meetings, then skulk off afterward and get what they want from whomever they want out of their own budgets. Those of you who suddenly found yourselves inundated with rogue Wi-Fi access points know what Lochhead is talking about.

Lochhead quips that LOB executives can be "firefighters by day and arsonists by night" when it comes to supporting IT standards. Once local LOBs step outside IT's worldwide standards and procurement process, trouble from security issues to compatibility problems is inevitable.

Prohibiting LOBs access to vendors is difficult and probably a waste of time. Both Roden and Lochhead suggest sitting down with these managers who lust for everything from wireless connections to the latest gadgets. Explain to them that denying every salesperson in one region technical support for, say, nifty Treo handhelds isn't an arbitrary exercise in power, but a rational application of business processes that make the company more effective, competitive and profitable.

Show them your portfolio management situation. That is, open the books about what you're doing for whom and why. Get them to understand why no is the right answer to their requests. If their arguments are sound and their requests valid, use them to help you make trade-offs in your portfolio by negotiating with other IT constituents to give up or delay their pet projects for something that makes more sense for the company as whole.

Also, make certain that LOBs grasp that although you're saying no, you're still aware that they might run off and spend their money wherever they want anyway. So, while you may refuse to back their technology investments with help desk or integration support, you can offer them advice on security and other matters to ensure that company assets aren't put at risk.

Your vendor management strategy needs to run on two wheels - one for IT inside and outside headquarters and another for LOBs. That approach will lead to a smoother ride.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at mark_hall@computerworld.com.

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Guide to Managing Vendors

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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