CIOs vs suppliers: Time for a new approach to tech projects

Tech chiefs have learned a great deal from working with vendors at a time of crisis – and where suppliers have stepped up to the plate, the result could be much stronger partnerships in the future.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

The rapid spread of coronavirus COVID-19 has forced CIOs to make fast decisions about how to keep organisations operating when the office is closed and normal processes rendered impossible.

Organisations like Leeds City Council and the University of Sussex have gone from having very few home workers to thousands of remote workers in under a week. In these organisations and many others, digital transformation has rapidly shifted from a long-term goal to a short-term necessity, with teams deploying networks, platforms and applications in rapid-quick time to help staff get online.

The CIO's crucial ally in this work, after their own in-house team, has been their tech provider. From collaboration platforms to cloud services and onto virtual private networks, CIOs have worked with IT vendors to roll out secure remote working. In many ways, it's been a huge success – possibly more successful than some might have anticipated.

Jason Oliver, director of IT at the University of Sussex, found himself in the unenviable position of having to get thousands of remote workers up-and-running in a matter of days. Yet he's full of praise for the way that vendor partners have risen to the challenge and helped his organisation embrace digitisation in weeks rather than years.

"I actually think that the supplier community has responded brilliantly over the past few weeks. As an example, Adobe extended all of their creative cloud licensing for students to put on their home PCs. A lot of the main tech companies have opened up and are allowing people to use their tools free of charge," he says.

SEE: Free tools and services for businesses during the COVID-19 crisis

That's a sentiment that resonates with Simon Liste, chief information technology officer at the Pension Protection Fund (PPF). He says that many tech companies are stepping up. Crucially, he says many of these vendors are allowing CIOs to try their tools before they commit to a long-term purchase.

"They're offering a lot of the services, that are business-specific and that could be of help, for free. So, some of the companies are doing what they can to help," he says.

This plethora of free options helps CIOs to explore how technology might help overcome the challenges associated to the establishment of remote working – and at no cost to the business. Tech vendors are of course hoping that once potential users have tried out tools for free, they'll become fee-paying customers over time. 

In a time of crisis, tech chiefs are more willing to explore options that they may not have had the time or the need to consider previously, and vendors are very keen to keep the pipeline of new sales prospects open with lean times predicted ahead.

But the preparedness of IT vendors to come to the aid of CIOs does give pause for thought to the University of Sussex's Oliver: if vendors can react so effectively at time of a global crisis, why can't they engage so effectively the rest of the time?

"I think one of the things that has really hit home is that actually a lot of the big tech companies have helped a lot – but that just really compounds the frustration of why they don't operate like that in normal times. The relationships would be so much better if they did that," he says.

The PPF's Liste also issues words of caution. While he's had strong support from his own vendor partners, he says some tech companies have been slow on the uptake when it comes to helping CIOs establish an effective remote-working strategy. In these instances, Liste believes some vendors "could probably do doing more".

This lack of effective engagement from IT suppliers should not come as a huge surprise. While vendors like to talk about the importance of 'trusted partnerships' with their customers, Gartner says many IT leaders struggle to make their vendors act in a proactive, collaborative and innovative manner. The analyst says strategic vendors can be complacent, slow-moving and intractable.

SEE: How to sell to the CIO

Too many CIOs get too little support from their suppliers in normal times, let alone at a time of crisis. Once the ink on a technology contract is dry, so the level of contact with the supplier becomes more sporadic. The level of interaction only increases again once contract renewal time comes around.

So could the faster responses and better efforts from vendors in a time of crisis evolve into a better bond between tech suppliers and their customers in the future?

Tech suppliers that step in and help CIOs now could help themselves in the future; more engagement could mean bigger deals going forward. "They're executing on those opportunities, because – in the long term – it is an opportunity for them," confirms Liste.

David Bishop, CTO at ecommerce website lovethesales.com, agrees that the challenges around coronavirus provide an opportunity to discover new technological solutions. For example, he had concerns about how long-term home working might affect junior developers, who often need one-to-one assistance. The answer came in the form of an add-on from a technology provider.

"One remote-working feature we discovered was the ability of Visual Studio 2019 to allow a 'live share' session – where multiple developers can remotely write code at the same time, similar to Google Drive documents, which we also use. This enables us to discuss, collaborate and write code in a very natural way, even though we aren't in the same room," he says.

SEE: Digital transformation: A CXO's guide (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Having to adopt new ways of working quickly has led him and his business to analyse the processes  – such as meetings, training sessions, demonstrations and decisions – that the organisation undertakes. Some of the technologies adopted to help support these practices will remain in place once business-as-usual operations return.

So while the coronavirus pandemic has led to a sudden intensifying of the workload for CIOs, the support offered by some IT vendors has come as a welcome relief. The long-term implication of that support could be that CIOs and their vendors finally do establish trusted partnerships.

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