With increasing responsibilities and tightening budgets, higher education IT departments rely more than ever on technology vendors. These external partners work closely with internal teams to help launch new initiatives, solve problems and even take over what were once in-house IT functions, which allows IT staff to focus on other critical initiatives. At their best, these relationships flourish as long-term partnerships built on mutual trust, understanding and respect.
On occasion, however, vendor/IT relations can be challenging. IT departments may perceive vendors as being more focused on sales than on solving problems, or think they’re attempting to work around IT to get their solutions on board. In other cases, vendors may be working at cross-purposes, rather than working together to resolve issues that prevent IT from meeting its users’ needs.
Understanding what can potentially cause friction in these relationships, and making a few small adjustments in perspective, can go a long way to ensure that vendor/IT partnerships truly thrive.
Weighing Transaction Versus Partnership
Relationship issues tend to arise more frequently when vendors and IT have a transactional arrangement rather than an ongoing partnership. In the latter case, each partner understands the other’s goals, not only in terms of this or that product feature, but also in the context of the broader educational strategies that the technology seeks to address. Partnerships are especially important in higher education, where IT tenures tend to be longer than in other markets. Often, vendors are a great resource for staff members who want to develop the skill sets they need to support new technologies and initiatives.
Higher education is also a highly regulated environment with a culture that tends to focus on the long term. Pushing products through without understanding all the related issues generally doesn’t work. With all the variation in educational missions, cultures and politics, it’s a mistake for a vendor to assume that a product that works for one higher education institution will be equally effective for another.
At the same time, as technology continues to shift toward cloud computing and service models, IT staff would do well to shed the illusion that they can continue to manage and master everything in house, without ongoing outside help. That’s why strategic vendor partnerships built on trust and a holistic knowledge of the customer and provider are so important for both the vendor and IT.
Keys to Successful Vendor Relationships
Organizations are better off developing strategic, long-term relationships with a few vendors that are invested in their success than working with multiple vendors in a transactional fashion just to save money.
As this CIO article points out, look for vendors that invest the time to learn about your institution’s drivers, challenges, purchasing processes, culture and regulatory issues. Vendors should demonstrate that they are flexible, willing to resolve difficult issues and as committed to the institution’s success as the customer is. In addition, customers should have a clear point of contact for any issues that come up.
At the same time, the vendor relationship also benefits when IT teams demonstrate that they trust the vendor, treat them as part of the team, give them the time and space needed to solve problems, and show an interest in the vendor’s success by referring them to other organizations.
Enforcing a separation between employees and nonemployees can be counterproductive. In the long run, it pays to include vendors in certain project and strategy meetings. Such relationships are always at their best when vendor and customer are both rowing together in the same direction.
This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.