Supplier engagement: How to get providers to buy into your agenda

Supplier relations are no longer as simple as creating one-to-one partnerships...

...been involved with a project that engenders such cross-party support.

"If you have a common goal, you can create support across a diverse environment of partners and suppliers," he said. "It sounds twee but I've really seen a family-like approach and real harmony between the different providers."

The experience means Hill is becoming an expert resource on change management and is regularly in conversation with other CIOs who are looking for best practice advice: "Our customers are amazed at how we have to plan to get this right first time and they want to learn, too."

Detailed programme management

When it comes to lessons for other CIOs, Hill's advice is simple: "Detailed programme management is crucial," he said. "I know it's dry, but meeting specific deadlines depends on being able to understand wider requirements, to validate technical demands through the business environment and to check back to see whether the output is as anticipated."

Back at BT's London headquarters, group CIO Clive Selley offers his own take on managing supplier engagement. He said BT manages an awful lot of suppliers, including relationships with network companies, software providers and systems integrators. Like his colleague Stuart Hill, Selley draws attention to the need for IT leaders to know what they require from their suppliers.

"Be very, very clear about what you want - say what you expect," he said. "A quality relationship is not just about short-term functionality, it's about long-term support." Support is where the problems often occur, so Selley said CIOs must be clear about road maps and desired business outcomes.

"Developing technology at a distance is a route to disaster," he said. "Avoid the world of disappointment, where you've committed to a vendor and then they don't develop at the anticipated pace. Are you a priority for your supplier? If you don't have the right discussion upfront, things will go wrong."

Supplier engagement built on mutual respect

Being a priority customer is essential, agreed Catherine Doran, Network Rail's director of corporate development. The experienced executive referred to key outsourcing deals, talking about negotiations with Oracle and how the supplier is helping the transport organisation to plan upgrades. That type of engagement, said Doran, is built on mutual respect.

"Be clear on your relationship with the supplier," Doran said. "Some deals are a transaction, such as the decision to purchase a set number of a particular type of product. Other deals, such as working with a software supplier, are subtler. A partnership here isn't simply about delivery today or tomorrow, it's about a successful week-in, week-out relationship."

When things are going well, said Doran, you should not need to give the supplier a crash course in business priorities. And if things are going badly, you should not see a shortening in the lines of communication.

"That type of understanding requires careful relationship building, with due time and care from all parties, right up to the executive level," she said. "Never assume a yearly meeting over a cup of coffee is enough."