"None of you seem to understand. I'm not locked in here with you... You are locked in here with me!" -Rorschach in Watchmen
It was a great scene; Rorschach, the slightly unstable vigilante, ends up being threatened by another inmate with a knife in the Sing Sing lunch line after he was jailed. Naturally, a lot of the other criminals were put in by Rorschach himself, so the situation may seem a bit difficult from his point of view. Well, Rorschach being Rorschach turns the situation upside down by beating up his opponent and by yelling the above quote. Now everybody knows that they are at his mercy, not the other way around.
Let's use this scene as an analogy for a client - vendor relationship. Rorschach represents a software vendor with greater powers than the other inmates. Logically, the other inmates now represent the customers who are locked in with their erratic vendor. It is quite clear what a lock-in in a prison setting means, but what does a vendor lock-in stand for?
Vendor lock-in is a situation where a customer has become dependent on a vendor without a feasible way of changing the vendor to another service provider or a product. Like in the movie reference above, the inmates have no other option than to figure out how to get along with Rorschach.
You might not have looked at it that way. Using Windows as an operating system, for example, is a type of vendor lock-in situation. If every computer in the company operates with Windows, the cost of migrating to Linux or OS X would be tremendous. When Microsoft decides to publish a new version of Windows, companies will usually install it and continue using Windows (despite its flaws), because moving to another system would be too expensive.
Another example could be a situation, where a customer cannot change a vendor due to a long common history or due to the strategic importance of the product/service the vendor provides. Additionally, in the software sector, the situation often is that this vendor hosts all of the source codes of the software they have tailored for the customer during the collaboration. This situation is the result of the lack appropriate expertise on the customer's side. In addition, the customer's rarely even have the tools to host the source codes themselves.
With Great Powers Comes Great Responsibility
(The heading is from Spiderman, I know. I read a lot of comics when I was a kid.) But let's get back to Sing Sing. What gave Rorschach the confidence to set himself as the threat to other inmates and not the other way around? The short answer is - his superior capabilities.
This often causes the vendor lock-in situations in the real world; a vendor has greater expertise in a certain field, which makes it possible for them to guide the customer to a certain direction. In a healthy relationship, there is nothing wrong with this, and this is why vendors are used. But there's always the risk that the customer will become dependent on one vendor, and the cost of switching vendors will rise too high. This is surprisingly common, especially in the software industry.
What Can You Do?
The reason why anybody uses vendors is their expertise. Thus, the way to avoid vendor lock-ins is definitely not trying to master every single field there is, and establishing a department for every imaginable action that you could outsource. Every company should focus on their core competencies.
As was said earlier, one of the main reasons for a vendor lock-in situations is the gap in the expertise between the vendor and the customer. In the software industry, the gap is a lot bigger than it is, for example, in customer service. If an outsourced customer service fails to live up to the expectations, it is easier to change because we all have experience in customer service. At least as customers. Thus, we have enough knowledge about the field in order to change to another vendor.
However, in the software development, the customer gets easily lost in the jungle of unfamiliar terms, practices, requirements, and concepts, if they have only a little experience in the software industry. When the customer feels like they are becoming too dependent on one vendor, changing can be made to sound very complex. For example, if the source codes have been stored by the vendor, transferring them to the new vendor can appear to be quite demanding.
To avoid the vendor lock-in, a customer should always aim at collaborating closely with the vendor. It may sound a bit paradoxical, but with close collaboration, the customer learns, the relationship grows healthy, and the goals are common. When a relationship is based on cooperation and respect, ending it is also more pleasant.
Very often customers rely on the vendor in choosing the tools. I'd like to challenge this approach because this results in a situation, where the customer needs to jump between myriads of different tools, especially if they have multiple software vendors. As a customer, you should manage your own effective software development platform, which includes all the relevant data regarding the software development. When you have all the source codes, change logs, tasks, and communication on one platform, the collaboration with vendors is a lot more effective, and vendor lock-in situations become rarities. When all the data is in one place, your new vendor can start working easily because they can see what has been done in the past and why.
Healthy customer-vendor relationships equal increased effectiveness and growing businesses. However, to have a healthy relationship, the collaboration needs to be seamless, and the vendor's greater expertise in a certain field cannot become the reason for a lock-in situation. In software development, a customer can mitigate the risk of becoming dependent on a vendor by controlling the environments where the development is done.
So, if you use vendors in software development, you should familiarize yourself with Deveo, which is a platform where all of your vendors act in their own projects, and where all the relevant information is stored for you to access, and for your future vendors to be used.
What about Rorschach and the inmates? Well, the situation could have been different if the other inmates would have just collaborated with him and not threatened him with a knife in the first place, right?