On one hand, there's "corruption". On the other hand, there's its ugly step-sister, "bad ethics".
Nothing wastes company time more in this country (or anywhere, perhaps), than bad ethics. "Corruption" is finite, after all. It's clear to most people what is corrupt behaviour. Ethical lapses, however, seem to be entirely subjective.
I've been thinking a lot about this recently and it's been a recurring topic of discussion in our offices too. It seems to be stemming from the number of ethically questionable people we've had the displeasure of working with over the course of Oceanic's existence. As a growing service provider, we have very little choice but to work with these people. Or do we?
One stinging situation we've been going through lately deals with a client who we built a web strategy for some time ago. The first phase of the project was some pretty straight forward web development and the project went fine, with no real problems or issues. The client was happy. The second phase of development focused on a few specific customer support applications. Our initial proposal provided an outline of these applications, how we would build and implement them into their existing website and at what cost. Again, everyone seemed happy with the strategic approach we suggested.
Some time has gone by since this proposal was put forth but it has recently come up again and the client appears ready to move ahead. Unfortunately, we're being told that they must tender for this service because it's their policy to get three quotes. My argument, not surprisingly to me, is based on the fact that their very tender is built upon a strategic approach and implementation plan WE HAVE GIVEN THEM. Why should any other company get the opportunity to bid for work on a strategy we've proposed? At least, that's my view.
The client stands firm. "It's our policy."
So we now have to waste time following some outdated tender process where we'll most certainly not be the lowest tenderer (since we rarely are). Is this a corrupt practice on the side of the client? No, of course not since they're just following "their policy". Is it ethical? Well...this is the grey area.
I have railed against the typical tendering process before. I hate it. It is counter-productive, inefficient and wastes the time of both the organisation putting out the tender and the people/organisations responding to the tender. It's most often done in the interests of "transparency" but in so many cases, it is anything but transparent. Do we really need to see tenders for "grass cutting services" after all?
A few years back, we worked with a client for about three weeks defining the requirements of an application they needed built. They were an existing client of ours who we'd been supporting for a few years already. We met with them countless times during those three weeks, examined their needs, exploring user interface directions, soliciting feedback and building an overall approach. It was all happening quickly in order to meet certain key performance indicators laid out for them by their board. All the relevant stakeholders signed off on the approach and we were literally just waiting for the purchase order to come through when some person on the client's side said "oh hey...shouldn't we tender for this in order to be transparent?"
Of course, we were told "Don't worry, it's just about being transparent. You'll still get this work."
The irony that this approach was the exact opposite of transparent was apparently lost on some of these people. We had no choice, however. We waited almost a month for them to get their tender in the newspaper. When we finally saw the printed tender, we were shocked to see that what they had published was essentially all the requirements we had spent three weeks building for them, down to the exact verbiage we used in our original submission! Ugly step-sister indeed...
To add insult to injury, we were also instructed to follow the tender specifications (which we wrote) and submit a response like everyone else in order to, again, "be transparent".
18 months later...we're still waiting for a decision.
Sometimes, a legitimate tender process can work in our favour. We went through a tender last year which was lengthy but was also done in such a way that it would have been almost impossible for it to not be real. The client had formed a tender committee and the final recommendation of this committee was the final decision to be followed. Is this the exception rather than the rule? In many cases, a tendering committee goes through their extended deliberations only to face the possibility of being overruled by a single senior executive. This calls into question why the tender committee even exists. This seems to be more common than I'd prefer it to be in the services industry in Fiji.
As we've grown as a company, our response to these ethically-questionable experiences have molded us in a number of ways and perhaps more importantly, impacted the way we respond to new project opportunities. There are many tenders now that we don't bother responding to, for example. If we don't trust the sincerity of the tender, we generally avoid wasting our time. There are times when it's near impossible to figure out whether an advertised project is legitimate or not. When that happens, we'll just weigh whether the opportunity is attractive enough to warrant a response.
For me, I've come to the realisation that any project which potentially wastes our time, is not a project worth doing at all. I think companies which chase work like this will end up being beaten to death over them too. In 2009, we made our first-ever profit as a company and it is very much due to being more selective about the people and organisations we work with. I used to feel strongly that we really needed to chase after everything out there. When I realised that this was a massive waste of time, we started earning more as an organisation. I wish I had learned it sooner.
There is the counter argument, of course, that a newly opened business cannot afford to be selective about its client opportunities. The argument is that in order to grow, you have to make sacrifices in the beginning. I'm 100% certain this is bullshit. We've gone through it. We've worked projects that I wish I had never gotten into and the result of that effort added no redeeming value for us as a company to market or use to move onto something else.
We have mistakenly made plenty of sacrifices on price as well, lowering our bids in exchange for the promise of future work and business. I cannot think of a single instance where this has paid off for us.
In Fiji, one of the most important business lessons I've learned is that it's essential to walk away from work if I think it can hurt us or cost us money. This appears to be an unconventional approach to business locally and it has even given us a label of arrogance at times (as in "Who does Oceanic think it is?"). The alternatives, however, are worse.
Do I have a solution for the faulty tendering process issue? Well, I think that the actual requirement for tendering should be flexible since the existence of such stringent policies definitely hinder creative and proactive project work. If I develop some idea and want to present it to a potential client, there's the highest likelihood that they'll be required to tender for it. That's a flawed situation and does nothing to encourage me to want to share ideas if there's the threat they'll be misused.
A much more "transparent" way of managing situations like this would be for the client to put an advertisement in the paper saying that they've been given some particular solution and won't be tendering for it. That's honest, straightforward, fast and would not be a time-waster for anyone.