Avoid IT Project Failure

Negotiate contracts that define expectations and balance risks.

May 17, 2011

A credit union’s information technology (IT) systems are its backbone and central nervous system. Investments in these systems are significant, and the business risk in the event of their failure is even greater.

Yet too often, the process for selecting vendors, products, and services, and negotiating the contract that sets forth vendor obligations and credit union rights is rushed and flawed—customer references aren’t sought, system requirements are inadequately defined, and the fine print is ignored until it’s too late.

As NCUA Letter to Credit Unions 07-CU-13 (“Evaluating Third-Party Relationships") made clear, credit union boards have a fiduciary duty to ensure third-party relationships are conducted in a safe and sound manner.

In addition, state and federal regulators are holding credit unions accountable for performing due diligence and risk assessments in evaluating third-party vendors.

Credit unions must negotiate and obtain agreements that offer adequate protection in the event of a project failure or contract breach.

While there’s no silver bullet that ensures the success of IT projects, it’s possible to reduce the risk of failure through:

  • An informed system and vendor selection process;
  • Well-managed contract negotiation and implementation by the credit union; and
  • Reviewing NCUA Letter to Credit Unions 07-CU-13 before undertaking a major project.

Credit unions should follow these steps to increase the likelihood that IT projects succeed.

System and vendor selection

When selecting a system and a vendor, credit unions should:

• Identify and express what functions the system must perform: problems it will solve, tasks it will perform, and time requirements.

If there’s any concern that internal credit union personnel aren’t sufficiently equipped to perform this job, an outside consultant unconnected to whomever might ultimately be hired for the work should be hired to help identify requirements, draft requests for proposals and review vendor responses.

• Request proposals from multiple vendors and leave time for face-to-face interviews with not only the sales team, but the vendor’s designated implementation team for the project.

Successful implementation requires excellent communication and responsiveness. Interviewing the implementation team offers important information on the vendor’s capabilities in this regard.

• Request customer references and follow up with them. Don’t underestimate the importance of the vendor having implemented the system in credit unions or other financial institutions.

• Analyze the vendor’s business to assess not only its track record with similar projects, but its reliance on subcontractors and its financial health.

• Ask to see the vendor’s form of contract that will be used as the basis for the final contract early in the process. Retain counsel with experience in software licensing and IT contracting to review the contract.

• Set a timeframe for vendor selection that permits time for thorough review and consideration of the proposals and negotiation process.

Next: The contract negotiation

The contract negotiation

The timeframe for contract review should be sufficient to permit counsel to review and critique the contract.

Beware of vendors who, upon giving you a copy of the contract, tell you that any promised discounts require execution of the contract in a very short time period. Vendors know that the less time you have to understand the contract’s legalese, the less likely you’ll be to request changes and clarifications.

Identify up-front what could go wrong and the cost to the credit union if failure or delay does result. Review and negotiate remedies and damages with this exposure in mind.

A specific statement of work should be part of the contract. Exhibit 1 to any contract should contain the system specifications and include:

  • The software to be implemented or developed and the functions it must perform;
  • All other deliverables, including consulting, training, documentation; and
  • Milestones and performance and acceptance criteria.

Be sure the statement of work, or another part of the contract, includes specific statements or representations made by the vendor regarding system function and capabilities that were important in selecting the particular system or vendor.

If they’re not explicitly in the contract, the “entire agreement” clause typically found in most IT contracts will render such promises unenforceable.

Other considerations:

• Make sure the contract has a workable approach to test performance before “acceptance” of the system, and hold back a substantial amount of the purchase price until acceptance has occurred.

The acceptance concept in the law of contracting is important in that the buyer can reject the goods only before acceptance. After that time, the buyer is left to contractual remedies that are often very limited.

Testing must ensure the system works properly in a live environment and integrates into the credit union’s systems. A minimum testing period of 30 days is advisable.

Most warranties that are implied by law for goods contracts are typically disclaimed in software agreements. Certain functions or attributes of the system may have been fundamental to the credit union’s purchase decision and should be the subject of express warranties in the contract—for example, that the software is free of defects or viruses, the software doesn’t infringe on the intellectual property rights of third parties, and the vendor isn’t currently the subject of any litigation that will prevent it from performing under the contract.

• Scrutinize the contract’s remedy and damage provisions. Most courts will enforce these limitations against a purchaser absent fraud or complete failure of the vendor to implement the promised remedy.

Most of these clauses limit the remedy to repair or replace the system and limit damages to what the purchaser has paid for the system. Contracts typically exclude the recovery of consequential damages, such as lost business or the cost of labor to deal with the failure.

• Beware provisions that shorten the period for bringing claims against the vendor or select a court venue or law that’s unfavorable to the credit union.

• Be sure that the vendor has processes and procedures in place to absolutely secure and protect nonpublic personal information of credit union members. The vendor’s disaster recovery plan should also be reviewed.

• Review and negotiate indemnification provisions and allocate as much risk to the vendor as possible. Third-party claims should be carved out from any liability limitation.

Project implementation

Assign a team from the credit union that is charged with interfacing with the vendor on implementation.

Schedule weekly project implementation meetings with the vendor where a senior credit union officer not on the implementation team is present.

Be sure the credit union project manager is checking the implementation against the statement of work in the contract, including the project schedule.

There are many factors that affect IT project implementation success. However, careful product and vendor selection and informed contracting as described above can go a long way toward ensuring project success.

GINA CARTER is chair, Credit Union Team, for Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C., Madison, Wis. Contact her at 608-234-6058.