January 16, 2014

Post -2008 economic slowdown, doing more with less -- or, at best, with what you already have -- has become the new norm. So how do you ever get ahead?

This is especially difficult for IT departments in small- to medium-sized financial institutions, since there's far less flexibility in schedules and budget allocations. But regardless of size, all financial institutions must contend with new regulations, ongoing regulatory requirements, application and infrastructure upgrades and security threats, all while ensuring key systems are available 24x7x365 -- and all before even beginning to think about new products and services, and meeting consumer demand for banking service availability on the latest e-gadget. So much time and energy goes into keeping the lights on; forget about finding extra time or resources to leverage existing systems for new opportunities or exploring new innovations.

[Many community banks are planning to increase investment in IT and new products and services like mobile banking and payments, KPMG forecasts: 2014 Forecast: Community Banks to Increase IT Investment Next Year]

To do more, we need to look outside technology and banking -- we need to look to sports. Now hear me out: There's a phenomenon in professional sports, particularly in the NFL, called the "12th man." The concept refers to a team gaining so much support from fans in the stadium that it's as if those fans were an additional player on the team. Although fans turn out in stadiums across the globe to support their teams, very few teams actually tap into the 12th man phenomenon. If you want to see it in action, check out the Seattle Seahawks' home games, or home games of the Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders.

In much the same way, some CIOs can leverage support from key vendors as their 12th man, and in so doing gain an untapped resource over and above the standard support. This approach is definitely not for the CIO who shops for technology the way they would shop for shoes or a plumbing fixture. Instead, consider that some vendors are key to your overall strategy rather than just a tactical purchase, and therefore, explore the value of a partnership focusing on a mutually beneficial approach to your relationship. Stephen Covey puts it best, where he describes "price-based transaction with suppliers" as being part of "industrial age thinking" versus "synergistic, mutually beneficial partnership networks" as "information age thinking."

Personally, I much prefer "information age thinking" and have always strived to work with my key vendors in a strategic partnership model that's mutually beneficial to both of us. My goal is to have vendors, particularly Relationship Managers, understand our business model as well as our market differentiators. After all, how can they help you if they don't know where they can help you? By understanding our business model, Relationship Managers can go beyond merely pushing more hardware, software, or their latest corporate product objective, but instead identify areas to bring more complete solutions that truly add value.

It's through these relationships that I start seeing the 12th man in action, as vendor partners start to bring us creative, collaborative, insightful and additive opportunities. I start to think of these partners as "arms-length" extensions of my IT department that facilitate a deeper corporate relationship with them. Based on pure customer-supplier-spend ratio, this approach can result in advantages on par with, and even beyond, what your larger competitors receive in support from shared suppliers.

Reciprocally, as vendors get a better understanding of our business, they are able to identify opportunities with other financial institutions and clients that they may have missed before. Therefore, it truly becomes a win-win for both sides.

As the relationship deepens, this approach also opens up access to knowledge exchange between team members. The vendor-partners are more forthcoming in sharing business and technical practices, as well as bringing in experts to share further insights long before any contract proposal is on the table.

You will be surprised at the depth at which the spirit of collaboration takes hold, resulting not only in a major reduction of CYA syndrome, but also inspiring vendor partners to step in to help when a problem isn't even theirs.

Even though BlueShore Financial is a regional, niche financial institution, we still have to compete with local, regional, national, and international organizations, and 12th man support has been extremely helpful in giving us a global perspective, particularly since a number of our key vendors are global players. Because they have a good understanding of our business model, our vendor partners often look for opportunities on our behalf within their own organizations and with their other customers and partners. Ultimately, these vendors provide more opportunities for our success, which in turn leads to their success, thus cementing a mutually satisfying and beneficial long-term relationship.

This tough competitive environment is not going away anytime soon, and we all need to find additional support wherever we can and leverage it to our best advantage. Look at your relationships with your key vendors: Is there potential to add the 12th Man to your team? Not all vendors can step into this role, since it hinges on collaborative thinking and striking a balance between Best-of-Design (BOD) and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).

Only in a collaborative, working relationship will you find a willing "12th man" partner who can provide you with that "extra bit" of support edge to help you thrive in this tough economic climate.

Fred Cook is Chief Information Officer, BlueShore Financial, and a 2009 Bank Systems & Technology Elite 8 honoree.