ONLINE, November 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.
|Information users have a litany of observations and complaints about information suppliers.|
Information users have a litany of observations and complaints about information suppliers. Ask almost any information user and you will hear comments like, "The contract terms and conditions are too restrictive," or, "The information provider doesn't provide adequate product training and support," or, "Invoices are difficult to understand and are often incorrect," or "The price is too high and does not reflect the value we get for the information."
Information suppliers have similar commentary and complaints. They will tell you that information users often do not respect the terms and conditions of the contracts they have signed; many users redistribute or reuse information in ways not covered in the contract; users do not respond to offers for training and support; and they seldom pay their bills on time.
Sound familiar? Whether you are an information user or information supplier, I am sure you share some or all of these observations and probably have a number of additions you could add to this list.
The question becomes, how to resolve this situation when both sides of the information equation have significantand understandablegrievances? How do we reach a common understanding that is fair and agreeable to both parties, where neither group feels unduly burdened or restricted? To begin to address these essential questions, let's return to the observation I made at the outset of this article: You can't live with them, and you can't live without them.
Information is crucial to the success of almost every company doing business in today's economy. It is the raw material that makes most companies work and has become increasingly more vital as a business tool. At the most basic level, companies (comprised of information users) cannot exist without information. That is, they "can't live without" the information suppliers.
Since a company can't live without information suppliers, what can be done to improve the existing climate? Create a relationship that is based on common business needs and objectives, and that is advantageous to both parties. Of course, you are most likely saying, "That sounds great, but how do I achieve that balance?" Success rests in basing the relationship on a set of understandings, as to how information users and information suppliers will conduct business and behave during the term of the contract.
During the more than ten years that I have worked in the information industry, I have put together my own set of rules on how information users and information suppliers should conduct business. This includes detailing what an information user should expect and what is due to users under the terms and conditions of contracts with information supplierstheir "rights". It also, just as importantly, includes the "obligations" that are assumed when the user signs a contract with an information supplier.
I call it the "Bill of Rights" of the information user. Just as the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights sets forth freedoms as well as duties as citizens, so too the Information User's Bill of Rights acknowledges that a consequence of enjoying certain rights means there are contingent duties and obligations.
|The rights of the users become the obligations of the supplier...|
"Information users," as referenced in this article, can be found throughout your entire firm. They are not just within the unit of your organization that sets information requirements, or the unit that purchases information, or even just primary user units like the Information Center. Rather, I am referring to the full range of primary and secondary users in all sectors in your company.
My list of ten "Rights" and ten "Obligations" has evolved over a number of years of purchasing information. It includes knowledge garnered from hundreds of meetings with information suppliers, from the review of countless contracts and high-level negotiations on major deals, as well as from continuously working with information users on all levels of seniority to provide for their information needs.
The list is a combination of varied criteria, including business requirements and objectives, legal and contractual issues, economic factors such as pricing and usage, and last, but certainly not least, ethics, morals, and striving for a sense of fair play.
Fundamentally, for the rights and obligations to be effective, there must be a good working relationship between the information user and supplier, where there is commitment on both sides. The information user cannot expect to accrue benefits from the information supplier without agreeing to obligations beyond monetary ones, nor should the supplier expect to receive the monetary and other rewards without assuming certain obligations.
1. Access to accurate information. This sounds basic and should be assumed, but it is not always the case. You, the information user, through purchasing decisions, make a determination on how important accurate data is to your company. However you decide to acquire information, you have the right to expect that the data will have the accuracy you assumed as part of your purchasing decision.
2. Access to timely information. Timing is critical and a primary factor in the cost of information sources. The same information, when delivered real-time to a trading floor, is priced significantly higher than non-real-time pricing data delivered to a research department. It is the same data but seen at different points of time. Timeliness, like access, is a major criterion in the purchasing decision of the information user. The user has the right to assume that the information will be delivered in the time frame agreed upon in the terms of the contract. If this is not the case, the data has less impact and the user has not received good value.
3. Access to complete information, as per the terms of the contract. At the point of negotiating the contract, the information supplier and user should agree on the level of information that will be included in the contract. It is essential to have a clear understanding of exactly what your information needs are and then to purchase only the information you need. You have the right to know that all information you have contracted for is being made available to you.
This is particularly relevant with information aggregators, who purchase rights to resell data from other information suppliers. It is not uncommon that the aggregator's terms with the original information provider change based on market conditions. When that happens, the information provider has an obligation to inform the consumer that the level of information now made available has been changed.
4. Access to Adequate Training. There should be a timely, complete, and interactive level of training that meets the schedule and operating hours of the users. Proper training will allow the information user to fully leverage the information being provided by the information supplier, and will allow the user to translate the information into an effective business tool. This must be done based on the schedule of the information user and cannot be disruptive to the business environment of the user.
5. Technical and operational support. Information suppliers need to give complete technical and operational support, including escalation procedures to address complex and/or far-reaching problems. Lack of proper technical support can result in inaccurate or late information for the user, both of which diminish the value of the information source.
6. Service level agreement. The user of information sources has a right to a level of warranty or guarantee for information services, as with any other product in the marketplace. Contracts should include language that assures a level of service, including compensation for lack of performance on the part of the information provider. The requirements will differ from user to user, but should include the accuracy and timeliness of the information as well as the support levels guaranteed by the supplier.
7. Complete and timely usage information. Simply stated, information users have the right to know that they are getting what they are paying for.
When you negotiate the contract, the information supplier and user make certain assumptions on the usage levels, number of end-users, level of access, and the range of information that will be provided and used. These assumptions are supported, or shown to be invalid, by timely and complete usage information.
Recently, on behalf of a client, I met with a major high-cost information supplier. As part of an ongoing information audit, we requested a monthly report that would show the last access date by individual users. We knew the information was available since we had seen it as part of another summary report.
The information supplier told us it would not supply the monthly report because it was proprietary informationtheirs. Their position was that the similar information included in the summary report should satisfy our client's needs, when in fact the other report was difficult to read, the specific information we were looking for was buried among other data, and extracting the information our client wanted was tedious at best.
In this case, having the information would have allowed the client to better manage information usage and cost. The information supplier, however, believed that this information would allow the user company to identify and subsequently terminate long-inactive accounts. Since the supplier saw this as detrimental to the size of the business relationship, it decided not to provide the requested information.
I find this practice to be unacceptable and detrimental to the long-term relationship between supplier and user.
8. Correct and timely invoicing. Invoices for information usage should be timely, fully descriptive, comprehensive, and should meet the administrative and financial processing needs of the user firm. The invoice should reflect the terms and conditions of the contract and should be able to be supported by usage information. This will allow the firm to allocate usage back to the user groups, projects, deals, or other user types.
9. Close client relationship. The information supplier's sales and support team should have a positive, ongoing, and interactive relationship with the information user. It should support the client's business requirement and objectives, maximizing the value of the information sources. If the information supplier only talks to the user at contract time, the user is unlikely to achieve full value from the information.
|...most information users I know adhere to most or all of the obligations....|
Turning to user obligations, I must stress that most information users I know adhere to most or all of the obligations I am about to list. Most firms have official policies and guidelines that mandate that the officers of their firm conduct business in a manner that is consistent with most of these obligations. Further, in most large firms, the Information or Resource Centers are the unofficial "gatekeepers" of the policies on information usage, and are fast to educate those who fall outside of the guidelines.
At the same time, we all know of cases where individuals or business units of companies might stray outside the terms of the contract without malicious intent. We also unfortunately know of cases where it is done knowingly, generally with the motive of avoiding costs or generating additional income. This list of obligation is directed at your entire firm. It is meant to be a remindera refresher courseon your obligations as you use information.
1. Know and respect contract terms. You and your supplier worked hard to arrive at mutually acceptable termsnow abide by your agreement. A good rule is to treat your contracts and agreements with your information providers in the same manner you would want your own clients to respect their contracts and commitments with your firm.
2. Respect user IDs and passwords. Do not share user IDs and passwords beyond what is allowed in the contract. This is critical to the information supplier and the baseline for its pricing and business model. You should look at this like you would any other product in the marketplace where you are allowed to use only what you pay for. If you are not happy with the number of IDs or passwords you receive for the price of the contract, renegotiate the terms of the contract. Don't live outside the terms that are in effect.
3. Respect copyright laws and intellectual property rights. The first step is to educate yourself about copyright laws, intellectual property rights, and other limitations on how data can be used and shared within your firm, and then to follow the rules. If you exceed the agreed-upon usage limits, compensate the owner of the information through proper channels.
4. Report usage information. Based on the terms of your contract with the information supplier and the policies and procedures in place, report timely and accurate usage information. This is the information supplier's source of data for invoicing, and must be timely. This is particularly pertinent with third-party sources that are delivered through another information supplier and do not have direct access to usage data.
5. User training availability. Make end-users available to training support, within a time schedule that is least obtrusive to the business environment of the firm. Recognize that users need to have the proper training to achieve the best results from information products and services. Too often, users blame suppliers for problems that could be eliminated by proper training.
6. Report operational and administrative problems and issues. Report all operational and administrative issues or problems to the information supplier in a timely manner and with proper business decorum. Recognize that if you do not identify and report problems, the information supplier cannot resolve them. Further, recognize that the person to whom you report the problem is probably not the direct cause of the problem, but your conduit to getting the problem resolved. Respect that person, and that person's role within his or her company. Telling him or her that the company or products are inferior because of one outage is probably an overreaction and not fair.
7. Report invoice discrepancies in a timely fashion. Identify all invoice and administrative problems and report them to the proper individuals on your information supplier sales and support team. As with technical issues, the information supplier cannot resolve issues if it is not made aware of them. This is critical to the timely paying of invoices, which the information supplier requires to stay in business.
8. Pay invoices on time. Follow the terms of your contract with the information suppliers, as presented on the invoice. Do not withhold payment of the total invoice if you have a problem with a specific charge. The information supplier has a business plan, a budget, and expenses to cover, just as your business does, and it has the right to expect payment for services delivered. Again, the objective is that the relationship will help both groups achieve their business goals.
9. Dedicate the proper amount of time to building relationships with information suppliers. Make time to interact with the information supplier's sales and support team during the course of the contract term. This will allow the information supplier to keep current with your company's goals and activities, and will allow them to respond to your changing needs.
10. Form partnerships. Identify key information suppliers and make them "partners" in your vision. Involve them in discussions on your company's objectives, new market directives, new products offerings, pending mergers, sales or acquisitions. Review how your evolving needs might impact service/ product usage, and allow your "partner" to help you achieve your goals. An information supplier cannot be innovative and offer new solutions if it does not know where your company is going.
This Bill of Rights will only work as a two-way process where both the information supplier and the information user make a commitment which will result in a positive relationship for both of them.
I have not used the word "vendor" anywhere in this article. This is intentional, as I believe the word can convey a lesser status. As we have observed, for the supplier-user relationship to be successful, both parties have to be on equal footing. There is an inherently negative impact and risk to both parties if the relationship is one-sided: The information user will likely not get good value for his or her information money, and the information supplier is putting its long-term business opportunity at risk.
The relationship between information users and suppliers is like any other functional business relationship. There must be binding terms and commitments, and there should be an expectationboth implicit and explicitof good business practice. Formulating and following an Information User and Supplier Bill of Rights and Obligations is the road map to this working relationship.
Willem Noorlander (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president, North America for TFPL Ltd.
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Copyright © 2001, Information Today, Inc. All rights reserved.