I was recently speaking with my colleague Josh Morrison (who heads up our client consulting practice at Lavante) about the state of Supplier Portals.  During the conversation I relayed some of the raw commentary I received in the wake of a recent webinar, “Why are there so many Supplier Portals?”  In the lead up to that presentation, during the event in the chat box, and immediately following it, I received more commentary based on that material than I had ever previously received from any other presentation topic.

The general consensus was that “Supplier Portals” do promise a major shift in how business can be done between Enterprises and their suppliers, but to this point the market has been plagued by what a lot of end-users refer to as portal fatigue.  Specifically, suppliers have found themselves navigating a very crowded “supplier portal” landscape where many customers offer many different portals for suppliers to access and upload information.  The accepted reality is that there are too many of these portals and they do not function completely as advertised.

Always one to see the situation from a fresh perspective, Josh pointed out that the development of “Supplier Portals” was going through a typical phase in its technological evolution and could benefit greatly by contemplating the “Stockdale Paradox.”  The juxtaposition, Josh pointed out, of how useful supplier portals can be versus the painful reality that they are difficult to navigate reminded him of a chapter from the well-know business strategy book by Jim Collin’s, Good to Great.  In the fourth chapter Collin’s recalls a conversation with retired United States Navy Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale who was held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War.  The conversation with Stockdale led Collins to coin the “Stockdale Paradox.”

In the conversation Stockdale plainly states that the prisoners which did not “make it” through the terrifying reality of being a war time prisoner were… the optimists.  He recalls that the optimists were the ones that died of  broken hearts when things did not turn out the way they hope in the time frame the wanted – whereas the ones that “made it” focused more on the reality of the situation.  In a particularly poignant section, Collins relayed the following quote from the retire vice admiral, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Collins used the Stockdale Paradox in “Good to Great” as a rule of success for business leaders.  In my interpretation the Stockdale Paradox teaches us that you can be an optimist, but you need to accept how bad things are at the same time.  Only then will you find the discipline to confront the reality of your current situation.

As advice for business leaders the paradox is brilliant.  As it relates to the development of portals – it applies perfectly; we are in the exact same place as a professional community.  On one hand – many practitioners see the potential of portals and they realize that wide spread self-service portals (which drive enterprise commerce) are inevitable.  These practitioners are highly motivated and they are innovating every day.  At the same time, there are a number of practitioners (as evidenced above) that have had bad experiences with portal products.

Perhaps these products were rushed to market or maybe the products are fine, but their instance was poorly deployed; in any case the bad experiences are adding to the growing sense of frustration and fatigue.  If we are to apply the Stockdale paradox we have to remain optimistic about the future of supplier portals, but we have to confront the reality that we are far off the mark.  In such a position as this we must employ the appropriate discipline to fix the problem over time.

Collins was right.  Stockdale was right.  … and Josh was right to make the connection.