Effectively Using an RFP as Part of Your IT System Selection Process
It used to be that I would work with my life sciences clients to define their requirements, identify a short list of vendors, and send out an RFP (request for proposal) for IT related systems. The process would be about educating the project team on what was possible, beginning the change management process, and building relationships with vendors all in the name of reducing risk and increasing likelihood of success.
With the rapid adoption of SaaS solutions, a lot of the life sciences companies I used to work with have opted to simply sign the SaaS user agreements without thinking about the their business requirements, the change in their business processes, and even ownership of their own data.
I worked with one biotech company who had a head of regulatory and quality sign an agreement with a document management vendor without thinking through the intended use and validation requirements. Even they didn’t know what was necessary for this type of system and was introducing unnecessary and unacceptable risk for his biotech company.
I know that a lot of vendors really hate RFPs. They see them as a waste of time since they are generally sent out to check internal procedure boxes and not provide value to either the customer or the vendor. I had an implementation partner routinely challenge me on my processes. He thought that I should just recommend the best solution based on my experience and shortcut the process. What he didn’t appreciate was that I saw value in the process. It wasn’t just about selecting the solution.
I can appreciate how vendors might loathe these types of RFPs. If the RFP doesn’t serve a broader purpose, it isn’t a value-add and should be skipped. Untrained project managers and team leaders don’t fully understand the value associated with a good process for selecting a new system and that selecting the right system is only one aspect of the selection process.
How To Effectively Use an RFP as Part of Your Selection Process
· Use the RFP process to educate the business on what is possible and begin the change management process. Every system implementation requires process and organizational change.
· Define your selection and evaluation criteria at the beginning and make sure to share with the vendor. There is no reason this needs to be a secret and I usually include in the RFP.
· Have a single point of contact for the vendors. The vendors will want to get access to all of the decision makers but this will make it difficult to manage the information exchange and ensure a consistent and fair process. The vendors do not like this but if managed effectively and fairly, this can be beneficial to all participants.
· Be transparent with your vendors. Let them know what the business objective is, who is involved, and how the decisions will be made. The vendors, if they are good, can be your allies and can help you get to the best solution. If not, they shouldn’t be part of the selection process.
· When defining your business requirements, make sure that the requirements are not biased towards one system. If they are biased, be open with the vendors included in the selection process and then be flexible in meeting the requirements. No one system has all the answers.
· Draft the RFP in such a way as to learn about the vendors and their ability to meet more than the functional requirements. RFPs can be used to learn about the vendors and their broader objectives to ensure alignment with your company’s objectives.
· The RFP process should be used to develop relationships with the vendors. Since a system will typically be in place for 3–5 years, the relationship is not short term. Software vendors, when engaged properly, can be enlisted to be business partners to help your company grow, scale and succeed. Life sciences is a small industry and the relationships that are built on one project will be valuable on other projects at other companies.
· In terms of building a relationship, you can learn about which software vendors are willing to invest in your company for your business. If a software vendor dismisses the RFP process as not worth their time, you can assume that they won’t value your business after you sign on the dotted line. I appreciate it when a vendor reviews the RFP, says that their system isn’t a good fit, and then declines based on poor fit and not refusal to do the work.
· If a vendor fails to respect the process, see this as an indicator of what the relationship will be once you enter an official business relationship. Salespeople are generally motivated to get the deal done but you want a vendor who wants to be a part of your success, not just their own.
·At the same time, you need the vendor to succeed as an ongoing concern so that you don’t have to scramble and find another system. This is why I always ask for current business status and future plans to ensure that where they are heading aligns with where my client is heading. This can be found in asking about their R&D and support dollar allocations.
·During the RFP process, if a vendor asks a question, share the question and the answer with all the vendors. This will provide a level playing field for the vendors and will help to build trust. It will also help you get to the best possible decision and solution.
Right-Sizing System Selection
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to system selection. If you are selecting a small, non-business critical, non-validated- non-cross functional system, you may not need a formal process.
Every company should have its own internal guidelines with thresholds for the amount of rigor for system selection.
Unfortunately, with the outsourcing of IT to third parties and inconsistent practices across functional areas, it’s challenging to try to have best practices around system selection and implementation let alone validation. Life sciences companies need to see value in technology in getting to market faster or optimizing business processes before we will see a significant change in this. But I digress.
Use your RFP process for good, not to just check a box. Be transparent with your vendors and see them as a partner in your project and company’s success. Use the process to educate your team, your company, and inform your future business processes. Never use it to just check a box…it’s a waste of time and resources and that’s not good business.