Mastering Partnership with a Remote Data Center

Michelle Billingsley, CIO, Blue Care Network of Michigan
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Michelle Billingsley, CIO, Blue Care Network of Michigan

When we talk about technology, it tends to be the shiny new gadgets that make headlines. Yet in my experience managing information technology operations for Michigan’s largest health maintenance organization, I’ve found one of the most important capabilities is the technology data center.

“Empathy has to go both ways. Not only does the data center provider need to understand your organization intimately, but your organization also must understand the data center provider.” 

A good, reliable and well-managed data center is a foundational necessity. Without it, IT leaders have almost no chance to deliver value to the business and win the trust of employees and leaders throughout the organization.

When systems are unavailable or unstable due to hardware failures, networking glitches or poor change management, calls to the IT help desk escalate, as do difficult conversations between business and IT executives about lost productivity and IT’s negative impact on the bottom line. Definitely not the makings of a strong partnership.

According to Gartner the number of remote data center clients in North America grew by 15 percent in 2014, with continued growth expected as businesses looking to cut infrastructure costs and choose remote or cloud offerings over in-house, on-premises options. The need to build and maintain a strong partnership with the data center becomes a bit more challenging in these emerging models. Nonetheless, the data center partnership remains critical to the business.

So, how should IT leaders go about building and maintaining a strong partnership with the data center, especially when it’s located hundreds or thousands of miles away?

Taking a page from my personal life, my wonderful husband was deployed twice during his years of service with the Army National Guard. So, trust me, I know something about long-distance partnerships! For those of us who’ve lived through long-distance personal relationships which remained committed and productive through thick and thin, there are key lessons that can be applied to partnering with a data center provider.

The first crucial element for a strong partnership with the data center is setting clear expectations. Prior to my husband shipping out for his first deployment overseas, we sat down to clearly lay out expectations. We talked about who would handle which responsibilities and how finances would be handled.

Similarly, the beginning (or reset) of any remote data center partnership should begin with laying out clear expectations. A contract typically handles all the legal language around obligations, notifications and penalties. However, before getting legal involved (note, I didn’t say ‘instead of’), sit down with the data center provider and the key business stakeholders to have an open and honest conversation about expectations.

Discuss openly what will change once the business begins operating out of the remote data center. Go over service level agreements (SLAs). Often SLA’s are buried deep within contract language and key stakeholders are unfamiliar with them. This can create a huge gap in expectations leading to business dissatisfaction. Keep in mind, how the data center operates has as much (and sometimes more) impact on the business as it does on IT. So, the business needs to be involved in this expectation setting discussion.

Ongoing communication is the next critical element for the successful partnership. Once expectations are set and contracts are in place, establishing a comprehensive and a predictable communication plan between the remote data center and the hosted client is key. Understanding the regular schedule and distribution of operational reporting, protocols for problem and issue alerts and regularly scheduled tactical and strategic discussions are necessary to maintain a strong connection between the two entities.

I can’t say my husband’s communications during deployment were all regularly scheduled. Based on what was going on at the time, he did his best to email, call or Skype. However, I can say that we established a good communication plan ahead of time and adjusted as needed. As a result, we stayed connected. We exchanged enough information between the home front and his overseas location to remain in sync on what was going on within our partnership.

The final critical element of partnership with the remote data center is empathy. I know that sounds odd when referring to the relationship with a technology partner, but it’s worth considering. Empathy in a partnership simply means trying to put yourself in the other party’s shoes and appreciate the situation from their vantage point.

Lack of understanding your data center partner’s situation or perspective can lead to incorrect assumptions, inappropriate reactions and loss of trust–all bad things in a partnership. Be sure the data center provider has a keen understanding and awareness of the business imperatives, the organizational culture, and even the internal politics. This will help them successfully structure the appropriate customer engagement model, escalation process and capability roadmap to support your organization over time.

Empathy has to go both ways. Not only does the data center provider need to understand your organization intimately, but your organization also must understand the data center provider. How is their business structured? What is their organizational culture? What types of customers have been most successful with them?

Although as a paying customer you might expect your business’ needs are always top priority, it’s an unrealistic expectation that your company will always be the center of the universe for your data center provider. Your data center provider must balance the priorities of multiple clients. See things from their perspective (at least sometimes) and the partnership will be more tenable.

Key stakeholders should participate in onsite visits during the initiation of the partnership, as well as throughout the partnership. Members of the data center team should meet face to face with IT and business stakeholders, alternating between the data center site and the business location. Sometimes cost is a deterrent to implementing this suggestion, but it’s still worth consideration. It’s difficult to express empathy via WebEx and conference calls.

When I reflect on the time when my husband was deployed, there were some highs and lows. But through it all, our partnership remained strong, and still does today. Setting expectations, maintaining communication and showing empathy helped us bridge the miles and weather the storms. The same holds true for partnering with a remote data center provider. 

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