Meeting of the Minds

BOSTON (05/31/2000) - In this fast-paced world in which technology executives are supposed to make wise and lasting decisions for the good of our customers and shareholders, we must use every means available to ensure our companies' success. We are under pressure from many different angles, from recruiting and retention to keeping up with changing technologies. One means that I have used to help in this daily battle is vendor review sessions.

The cruise industry is a small one by any relative standard, and there are many complexities that go along with operating the shoreside and shipboard environments. The better our vendors understand our business and the environment we operate in, the better they are at shaping solutions for us.

If you are like me, your vendors fit one of three general categories: one, close enough to be considered a friend; two, a necessary evil; or three, scum of the earth. Regardless of which category they fall into, vendors are important allies in my quest to stay up to speed and to influence the direction of technology. I have always made it a point to treat my vendors with respect, to be honest and candid, and to dissuade them from quixotic attempts to win my business when it is not possible. I visit vendor sites when my schedule allows to see current and future developments, and I encourage my staff to do the same.

Several months ago I started holding vendor review sessions, and this has had a dramatic effect on the relationship between my company and my vendors. The days are two-way information sharing opportunities. I ask that the vendors refrain from sales pitches and concentrate instead on understanding my business and my company's technology needs. The first part of the day is spent reviewing my company's six- and 12-month challenges, and then we talk about the strategic vision for the next 36 months. Our discussions focus as much on business issues as on technology. We then turn the floor over to the vendor. The vendor is encouraged to focus the presentation based on what has been discussed in the morning. The benefit? Virtual elimination of prepared, canned presentations.

I invite everyone in IT to attend the sessions, and the attendees vary based on the vendor. We prepare by outlining the key issues and strategies and e-mailing them to the vendors ahead of time. I tell the vendors who will be in the audience and encourage them to bring the right people. The sales guy is always going to show up. That's fine. But the right engineer, the right technologist, the right strategist must also be present. This is not a glad-handing session.

I don't care about the titles of the people who show up on the vendor side, as long as they are able to communicate and participate actively and effectively.

I avoid the temptation to put competitive vendors on stage together, regardless of the fun such a fireworks display would be. I do select complementary vendors and vendors that have alliances or partnerships to participate together. This adds to the brainstorming attributes of the meetings.

So far, we've had five of these meetings and are averaging one a month. We hope to make them more frequent but time constraints make that difficult. Does it always work flawlessly? Of course not. But it works well most of the time, and as my key vendors adapt to this way of working cooperatively they get better at the process. The ones that don't get it and keep trying to sell are simply stopped and the meeting is adjourned. One time and they usually get the message. Two times and the vendor does not get another chance. I've yet to have one make the mistake twice.

Looking for a platform for your ideas? Let us know at platform@cio.com. Tom Murphy is CIO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. in Miami.

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