How to Create a Productive Partnership with an Ed Tech Vendor

The following post is part of a series on Digital Leadership in Higher Ed with GuidebookEDU’s Digital Leadership Partner, Josie Ahlquist. It was collaboratively written by both Josie and Guidebook’s Sr. Content Manager, Jordan McArthur.

Have you ever been a part of choosing a technology solution or software for your team? What was it like? Did you feel like you were just “being sold to” or were you working with a company that you felt truly understood what you were trying to accomplish?

The technology landscape for higher ed has changed a lot – even in the last 5 years. As SaaS (software as a service) and cloud-based systems become the norm, interesting changes are occurring. Software is becoming more niche. The days of all-in-one software solutions sold by behemoth tech companies are fading away. In higher education, this means solutions that better solve specific problems for your campus, but it probably also means more vendor sourcing, demos and RFPs (requests for proposal).

Now, despite your area or focus, it’s likely that at some point you’ll need to evaluate a tech vendor. If you haven’t done this before – or you’ve entered into a less-than-ideal contract in the past – there might be some anxiety around the process. That’s why we wanted to make this topic a part of our Digital Leadership in Higher Ed series. You should have the power to evaluate technology, and create a beneficial partnership in the process for a longer term solution!

Considering Campuses – Josie’s Perspective

Josie AhlquistAt any conference I speak at, I take time to explore the expo hall. This past year something significantly shifted in the number of ed tech vendors packing in their products at these conferences. I declared on my blog that Silicon Valley had arrived to Higher Ed. At the NASPA 2016 conference over half of their vendors were technology related. As I walked past these vendors, I began to wonder if my colleagues were equipped to approach vendors offering what appeared to be innovative products – but also some that even I had concerns with based upon current campus technology infrastructure.

We need to know the players in ed tech and how building relationships with them will benefit our campuses, networks and resources. But these educational technology companies need our voices. This was part of my intention to collaborate with Guidebook this month, to explore digital leadership through a lens of ed tech partnerships and empowerment to all campus administrators.

The rate of tech change on campus and around the global is at speed unlike ever before. In higher education , we are driven to engage with students which now includes digital engagement. So it is no surprise that the number one question I get is if that office, division or university should build their own app or hire a vendor like Guidebook to build from. Discerning tech related choices will only increase the more student services and courses move to online methods of delivery. But grad prep programs, professional development and conferences are hardly offering education to guide this decision making and relationship building process. In response, this post will empower and address guidelines for strategic and collaborative partnerships with tech vendors.

Considering Business – Guidebook’s Perspective

jordan-mcarthur-160x160At Guidebook we’ve observed many of the same things as Josie – especially a recent swell in the number of vendors claiming solutions specifically aimed at Student Affairs professionals. As a company, we have our own thoughts and feelings about how to approach the higher education market and hopefully most of that has been proven through action. We made a conscious decision in the early days of approaching schools to understand their viewpoint. It’s resulted in the majority of our education-focused team being made up of former higher ed professionals.

But that’s our specific approach, and no two companies are alike. Are there certain things across the board that you can expect from technology companies? And what are they expecting from you? Let’s break it down:

What should you expect from a tech company?

To be listened to
Technology should help you overcome an obstacle. It’s going to be hard for a company to help you jump hurdles if they don’t understand what those hurdles are.

Year-over-year improvement
One of the great things about SaaS (software as a solution) models is that the vendor can continue to improve their product without pushing out major or expensive upgrades. It’s okay to expect the product you buy to continue to get better each year.

Insight based on other implementations
Not all schools are alike – but they certainly share many of the same pain points. One of the benefits of going with a technology vendor who has worked with a variety of schools is that you should be able to tap into all that experience and maybe avoid some common pitfalls along the path.

Great support and account management
Once you make a technology investment, you should be able to use it to its full extent without anything standing in your way. It’s a good idea when shopping for tech to get a clear picture of what the relationship will look like after you sign the contract. Will they actively help you get your money’s worth?

What do tech companies expect from their higher ed clients?

Honesty about budget and buying cycle
It helps us to know up front the size of the investment you’re willing to make and when you’ll be able to make it. We won’t hold it against you, but it will help us individualize the solution at the start. Vendor relationships that don’t start with budget transparency only make for a lot of frustrating conversations later.

The ability to bring decision-makers to the table
It helps you and it helps us if the people who have ultimate buying power are included at early stages. It saves a bit of energy (not having to demo the product 10 different times), and helps elevate the conversation earlier in the process, making for better implementations later.

Help navigating the intricacies of your organization
Student Affairs pros are as aware as anyone that the structure of universities can be complicated and very widely among institutions. If there need to be multiple departments on the call, it helps to know that. If your team is on board, but another team needs some convincing, we can help you frame a compelling argument.

The Pre-Partnership 10: What to ask Ed Tech Vendors

Are you attending a conference soon – or have a phone call with tech vendor coming up? Prepare yourself with a list of questions to address. Some of these questions may also lead you seek out information from your university information technology office, university relations, etc. Note: Shout out to Joe Sabado, an experienced higher ed IT executive director, for collaborating with us on these 10 guide questions!

1. What is the background of the company?

  • History: How long have they been in business? How stable are they?
  • Experience with higher ed: A list of other customers, preferably from similar institutions.
  • Size of company employees relative to their number of customers: Determine their capability to support your needs.
  • Future direction: Current financial health. What is their product roadmap?
  • Competitors: Who do they consider as their competitors and how do they differentiate themselves, what makes them better choices than the others?

2. What is the pricing model?

  • Is this a one-time or recurring cost?
  • What’s included in the pricing and what are other cost for additional services/features?
  • What determines the price? Is it concurrent, per user, per processor?
  • Are there additional licenses to be purchased beyond their software?

3. Does this service play nice with existing campus services?

  • How functional is it? Is it easy to use and learn? Can you customize it?
  • What are the technical requirements?
    • Does it align with existing technology/systems?
    • Does it integrate with existing systems? Can you use your campus identity system for authentication/authorization (single sign on)?
    • What hardware, additional software are needed to run the software?
      • If hosted on-premise, what are the server requirements?
      • What are the end-user requirements?
  • Is it mobile friendly?

4. How secure is the data?

  • What are the procedures and policies for managing data security?
  • Does the organization have formal written information security policies and procedures?
  • What security controls do they have in place?
  • Is physical access to data processing equipment (servers and network equipment) restricted?
  • Do they follow secure data destruction processes for confidential data and IT equipment/media?

5. How accessible is the data?

  • How can we access our data?
  • Do we have direct access to the data or do we need to use special tools?
  • How do we migrate data to your systems? What if we decide to discontinue our partnerships?

6. Compliance

  • Do they have the ability to meet institutional policies for security and data management?
  • Is there compliance in the legal areas of the business (HIPAA, FERPA, PCI)?

7. What kind of support is there?

  • Does the company have a service level agreement for availability, support?
  • What’s the average turnaround time for bug fixes?
  • How often are program updates implemented? How do they coordinate with the customers?
  • What are the hours of and methods for support (phone, email, a knowledge library)?

8. How much involvement exists after signing the contract?

  • Team, structure, and process
    • How are scope changes managed?
    • Do they have dedicated project managers/team available for implementation?
    • Do they offer on-site service during implementation?
    • Do the company provide the project implementation themselves or do they work with third-party implementation partner?
  • Expected contributions from the institution
    • What expertise, staffing, project roles are required from the institution?
  • User Training
    • Is employee training included in the implementation? Is that additional cost?

9. What happens if something goes wrong?

  • Does the organization have regularly tested disaster recovery plans for data processing facilities?
  • What is the contingency plan if the company was to go out of business?

10. Can we check some references?

  • Ask for a list of schools to talk with regarding their experience with the company and their products/services as well as implementation and customer support experience.
    • What is their overall experience during negotiation, implementation, and after going live?
    • How’s the actual estimated cost compared to actual cost?
    • How responsive is the company to providing support and changes to the products?
    • What services/features were promised vs actually delivered?

We’re hosting a live chat on June 1 at 1PM EST on this very subject! Just visit this link and join in the conversation. We’ll have both ed tech vendors and higher ed professionals on the line to talk about their experiences with creating productive partnerships!

Be sure to visit Josie on her blog, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!

And if you’re looking for an ed tech vendor to partner up with you on mobile apps (we’re happy to answer any of the Pre-Partnership 10), you should check out Guidebook. It’s free to get started.