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Project Management – Working with Suppliers (#9 in the series Project Management Guide)
By Lasa Information Systems Team

The most crucial step in many technical projects is to find the right supplier. Find a good company to develop your website or to set up your database and the project is well on the way to success. Pick a dud and you’re in for a nightmare.

Good project management technique really begins to pay off when it comes to choosing your supplier. The work you’ve done producing a project definition will be a big help in selecting and managing your supplier.

Invitation to tender

The starting point, whether you’re going through a major tendering process or just talking to consultants about a small piece of work will be a clear statement of what you require from a potential supplier.

This document will communicate your needs to a supplier; provide the basis of their tender, and of the contract between you. An Invitation to Tender (ITT) will set out what you require, and also deal with procedural issues of how you will go about the tendering process and what information you require from them.

See our example template for an ITT.

Your list of requirements provides the meat of the tender document. The more detail you can provide about your needs, the easier it will be to select the best company. There’s a tendency for companies to be very confident about their products and to believe they can do everything that anyone could want. The only way to make them cost the job accurately is to give specific details of the all things you must have. This forces you to think through your needs in detail: a hard but necessary part of the process.

Don’t make the mistake of prescribing solutions. The trick is to describe your requirements and leave it to them to offer solutions. You’re the expert on what you want to do: they are the experts in the technical solutions.

Smaller community and voluntary organisations face a particular problem in talking to commercial companies, particularly those that have not worked for this sector before. Commercial companies will tend to assume that smaller not-for-profit organisations will have modest requirements, easily met by their standard offerings. In fact the opposite is true. Many community-based organisations are very information intensive, and their information management needs are demanding and different from those of commercial companies. You need to be aware of this tendency and make sure you supply enough detail about your requirements to ensure they know what they are getting into.

Issue the tender document to as many companies as you can find. Recommendations from other organisations are always the best way to find good companies, but you need to cast your net wide to give yourself the best chance. Give them three weeks to respond and use their responses to make a short-list of companies you will interview. Use standard good practice for recruitment throughout. In the interview, don’t let them spend more than five minutes on a standard presentation on their company.

Throughout the process the five key questions are:

  • Can they do the work?
  • Do they understand what you want?
  • How well do they manage themselves?
  • Can you work with them?
  • Are they financially viable?

Supplier management

Good project management is nowhere more needed than when dealing with suppliers for a technical project like a website or database, although it applies equally to managing building works or any set of deliverables. The key issues are to ensure that they deliver what you want, when you want it and on budget.

Specification

The starting point is to ensure that your supplier understands what you want and can specify a system to meet those needs. Your Project Definition, together with Product Description and Invitation to Tender documents will provide a sound basis for further discussions. Your supplier should produce a technical specification for you to agree before they start the work.

The process of agreeing a specification is a subtle one. You know your requirements but you probably don’t know what is technically possible. You have to work in partnership with the supplier to tease out what solution will be best for you. You shouldn’t be too prescriptive; you don’t want to stifle their creativity. You have picked the company for their abilities and you want them to have ideas you haven’t thought of. At the same time you need to stick to your key requirements. Don’t be talked out of them because they are unusual or hard to deliver.

Managing the project

You need to keep in control of the project, and sound project management techniques will help you do that. You don’t want your supplier disappearing for a long while to do the work and then coming back with something that doesn’t do what you want.

Instead, break the project into stages and agree milestones for the completion of each. Your suppliers will have other customers to contend with and will probably prefer to leave schedules a bit vague. But you will have your own deadlines to meet, so ensure scheduling is done accurately and monitored closely.

Communications

Good supplier management requires considerable skill and depends on good communications and a level of trust between the two partners. Technical projects aren’t easy, with a high level of risk and stress for both parties. It’s easy for trust to break down. You’ll think they are slow in delivering the goods and worry that they can’t do it. They’ll think you are poor at thinking through what you want and don’t understand the technical limitations. The key is to work closely together, communicate well, and at all costs prevent an ‘us and them’ attitude from developing. After all, you both are working hard to achieve the same aim and both want to succeed.

For more details contact the Information Systems Team at Lasa – ist@lasa.org.uk, 020 7377 1226.

Lasa Information Systems Team provides a range of services to community and voluntary organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST is responsible for maintaining the ICT Hub Knowledgebase.

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