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How networking pros can help make better IT buying decisions

Knowing how smart buying teams make good choices adds to the value IT pros bring to the task of purchasing new hardware, software, and services.
  • Tim Greene (Network World)
  • 14 October, 2020 14:55

IT purchasing teams have a dismal track record, in part because they face a number of roadblocks. Undue influence of a few team members who only check in occasionally. Failure to include a diversity of stakeholders. Paying too much attention to what vendors say about their own products. Not giving security its due.

So what can IT pros do to improve things and ensure successful purchases when they're members of buying teams? Plenty, according to Gartner.

The research firm surveyed 1,464 respondents from midsize and large companies worldwide and found that, on average, they made 26 buying decisions per year for products including infrastructure software and data center gear, managed services, security, and application software.

Their success rate is measured by whether they made what Gartner calls high-quality deals – deals that fulfill the initial ambitions of the customer, result in smooth deployment of the purchase, and involve buying premium products.

The rate of landing high-quality deals is startlingly low, just 27% on average, according to Hank Barnes, who did the research. And nearly 40% of those polled registered "high regret" with the decisions they made.

Barnes spends most of his time advising vendors on how to improve the way they sell and market their enterprise products, but what he's discovered reveals a lot about how purchasing teams work and what IT pros might do to improve their winning percentage.

Define success

Enterprise buying teams need to start by determining the desired business outcome associated with a new tech product or service. Ask, "What is the purpose of this purchase?" and tie the answer to things like improving company revenue, risk or reputation. "Looking at success before it happens, we think, should be part of the decision process," Barnes says.

The task, for example, might be updating network infrastructure to support edge computing at regional sites. The technical goal would be having IoT devices report with no latency. The business goal might be supporting revenue growth by 10% as a result of the update. The question to ask is, "What would that mean in practical terms?" Perhaps the answer is optimizing 25 sites per month for the next six months. That means having a migration plans in place by a certain day to do cutovers on time. "Effectively it’s reverse-engineering the project plan," Barnes says.

As part of what he calls the pre-mortem, teams should also define failure. For example, what if they make a good purchase but no one adopts it? Think ahead to user training so the purchase has buy-in.

Tip for IT pros: Get a clear picture of why the purchase is being made, and make sure the rest of the team understands it. Throughout the process, keep the goal in focus and ignore side issues that might crop up.

Team size matters

When purchasing teams are being put together, the more participants the better, so long as they are people who can offer relevant input. For example, a line-of-business representative could offer valuable insight into whether end users will buy into using the product being chosen or will require significant training in order to make use of it. These representatives of functional groups within the business provide context that the team's core decision makers might otherwise lack, Barnes says.

The more of these functional groups that are involved, the fewer the delays in the buying process, Barnes says.

Tip for IT pros: When siting on a buying committee, think through which users the purchase will affect, and push to have representatives of these groups provide input.

The group of core decision makers – the ones who actually decide – who receive input from the functional groups has an optimal number: three to five. That's the size that gets the best purchase outcomes, according to Barnes' research. These members should attend all the team meetings, receive input from the functional groups, and add to the deliberations.

Buying teams inevitably also have occasional participants – executives overseeing the project from a distance, power users and the like – who Barnes calls drop-in decision makers. By authority of their positions in the corporate hierarchy or force of personality, they can sway the direction the team takes.

Because they don't attend all the meetings, they aren't there to hear all the factors considered in making recommendations. As a result they may unduly reject recommendations out of hand based on personal preference, Barnes says.

Tip for IT pros: Prepare summaries of what the team has been up to since the occasional participants last attended, and give them a briefing to bring them up to speed.

"I call it how-we-got-here guidance," Barnes says. That way, their recommendations will be better informed and less likely to lead to bad decisions. Also, IT pros can help by evaluating how occasional participants' suggestions are likely to affect business outcomes, which can rein in any recommendations that are off-point.

If possible, it's best if occasional participants are kept to a minimum, Barnes' survey found. The best success rate was 52%, and that was for buying groups with three to five active participants and zero occasional participants. The worst performing groups were those with one or two active participants and more than one occasional participant.

Consult outside sources

Buying teams that use outside resources to inform their decisions wind up making more high-quality deals, Barnes found. For those that rely only on information supplied by vendors, the rate is 20%. The more different perspectives brought to bear on a purchase, the more potential issues come to light and can be addressed. "That's the power of diversity," Barnes says. "When I go into buying with a very narrow perspective, biases can really get in the way, and independent validation helps me fight that."

Tip for IT pros: Call on outside sources, including independent tests and reviews, analysts and peers. IT pros can in turn help out their peers by contributing accounts of their experiences with specific products to public review sites.

Involve security

Security concerns account for the biggest delays in making IT buying decisions, yet, unbelievable as it sounds, only 29% of those who cite security as a delay factor bother to involve security, risk and compliance pros on their purchasing teams.

This can happen because teams form with functional groups that may understand their own security concerns, and believe they can address them, but they also lack overall security expertise. Then as the buying process moves along, someone asks for security pros to be consulted, and when they are, their analysis can introduce delay.

Including security pros not only reduces delays but also improves outcomes. Barnes' research found that when security was involved, regrets over ultimate purchases plummeted. For example, when data-center hardware buyers failed to included security pros on the team, 53% of them registered high regret over what they bought. When security was involved, high regret dropped to 18%. "We see less regret because security touches everything," Barnes says.

Tip for IT pros: Make sure your security colleagues are drawn in to help evaluate potential purchases, and do it early. The later in the process that security teams are consulted, the more the entire process will be slowed down.

Mange time and priorities

Working on buying teams isn't part of everyday IT responsibilities; it's extra work that competes with full-time jobs. And many IT pros find themselves on multiple buying teams at the same time, so their attention can be drawn in many directions.

Team members should rank the importance of their varying tasks and assign the appropriate resources to them.

Tip for IT pros: Enlist enough interested parties with knowledge of relevant areas to consider specific aspects of the purchase and report back. This delegating responsibility lightens the load on individuals in addition to broadening the knowledge brought to bear on the project.

Working on an IT purchasing team is a weighty responsibility and a significant time commitment. The primary strength of IT pros' involvement is their technical expertise, but they can expand their contribution by helping the team function with more clarity, focus and efficiency to produce better outcomes.