My mom and dad were able to ensure both my sister and I felt admonished if we were fighting, even if one was absolutely to blame over the other. (Sorry, Kelli….I know I was usually to blame!) But I only have 1 kid. I don’t get to look for the easy out (blanketing both with guilt when I likely should be exploring who the guilty party is), when that likely is warranted. However after going to two conferences in one week, I felt the push and pull of frustration coming to a head and I just wanted to yell, “Stop it! Both of you!” Let me explain.
A Tale of Two Conferences
In a single week, I attended both ASU/GSV in San Diego and OLC in Nashville. And as someone who, until 2 months ago was sitting on the academic side of the aisle exclusively, I attended a number of sessions about “how to work with ed tech vendors” at both conferences. What a uniquely different experience.
On the one hand, I talked with several academic colleagues at ASU/GSV who looked like frightened deer. They literally explained to me the feeling of being circled by vultures, their differently colored badges like a magnet for every commercial provider and vendor in the land. It was like open season on the universities by the thousands of providers who descended on the Hyatt. Even the sessions illustrated this. Talk by vendors about the frustration of working with schools that were notoriously slow, compartmentalized, and unable to actually make decisions (and don’t even start down the conversation path of procurement) were obviously concerning to companies used to working with other companies. As one tech insider said, “Even the military or Washington government agencies work faster and more efficiently than higher education!” That is a stark statement as we all know what the other two organizations are like. It’s a bit like saying the military is the valedictorian of summer school…which means higher ed is…well, you get the idea.
On the other hand, OLC was a very different experience. There were sessions about working with vendors, but it was almost always a melancholy, lamenting kind of experience. IF ONLY…was how many statements from presenters and audience attendees alike would begin. Frustration around cold calls, over-burdened inboxes, pushy sales persons, price points, and on and on were discussed. Essentially I seemed to attend sessions filled with survey takers. Do you know what I mean? You know how survey respondents are typically made up of only two kinds of people – 5% of people who are very happy with a product or service and 95% of people who are frustrated beyond belief with a product or service. (Most people in the middle simply don’t take the time to respond to a survey.) That was how the sessions felt.
Some of you savvy readers are likely rolling your eyes or sighing right now. You know how it works and you’ve come to terms with how to make it your own. Ironically, as a member of the CWiC Framework Executive Advisory Board, I sit on the vendor subcommittee. Even when sharing our subcommittee’s findings with the other Board members at OLC, it’s easy to fall back into that place of frustration. I mean, this board is a heck of a board. We have leaders whose blogs you follow, people who are at the top of the education administration game, people who have worked on both sides of the vendor / educator context! Yet even in our meeting it was easy to lament the difficulty with commercial products and services faced by education (from ethics to transparency), while also cringing at the lack of agility, good business sense, or real-world understanding of schools. There are so many variables, it is simply unrealistic to expect much in the way of change for this arrangement.
All Is Not Lost
So what are we to do? How can educators get to the heart of the a product or service, ensuring it meets needs appropriately, at scale, in a financially viable way? At the same time, how can a commercial organization work toward a solution with educators, not to have that work undermined by a procurement office or state agency ruling? The answer is simply to grow up, knock it off, and be smart. Here’s what that means.
First, to my commercial friends and peers out there, of which I have many, I urge you to knock it off. If an educator takes my next set of advice, this will become really important. When I say “knock it off” here is what I mean. Don’t get angry when people don’t respond to your calls or emails. If you’re going to do cold-calling (vs inbound marketing, etc), then you have to be ok knowing you are asking 99 people who don’t believe they need you to take time out of their day to talk with you. When I was in full-on Chief Innovation Officer mode at Saint Leo, I was ALWAYS on the hunt for new products, services, process improvements, etc. That said, I received 8-20 cold emails per day (including weekends). 75% of them I was already familiar with. I’ve been around this business a long time and I know what a product genre is, or in some cases I knew specific products. And I knew the solutions I believed we needed vs those we didn’t. So I ignored many of those emails entirely. (In addition to the 8-20 sales emails I would receive, I also got 200-300 emails from meaningful stakeholders which needed some kind of action…) Then there are the emails that went to spam / junk because the sender didn’t format it properly. At the same time, those sales engineers who went above and beyond, somehow finding my cell phone or home phone and calling in the evening or on weekends…you need to know that you have overstepped. Sure, you may end up with 1 follow up call in 1,000, but you are also blacklisting yourself for a huge chunk of people. So take my advice and knock it off.
Second, to my educator friends and peers out there I urge you to grow up. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but it goes with the blog theme, right? Here is what I mean. Education institutions are simply not bastions of innovation. You aren’t building products or likely even new processes as much as implementing / using products and services from outside organizations. You don’t have the money to build much of anything, let alone multiple things. And if the experts are right, you either innovate with a regular cadence, or you die. So, that means you need to look…a lot. You need to take calls and demos regularly. Even if you aren’t an innovation officer, where 5-8 hours of my week was for this express purpose, you should consider one demo per week. Imagine being a head of library in 1999 and having this little start-up called “Google” coming to you with an idea for better searching, but you saying, “No, I’m too busy…” Look, I know that you will have to deal with less-than-savory people from time to time. While I have known some fantastic sales people who have a legitimate heart for education and believed they had found a way to help students succeed without the PhD, I have also met some jackasses. I know sales people who are solely interested in making money OR techies who are only interested in people trying their “cool” software. Yes, that is a reality you will have to deal with. But look at it like Accreditation. You can look at it as an episodic nuisance, which it will then become – complete with frenetic years of chaos and nervousness. Or, you can look at it as a way to improve quality and ensure alignment of offering, which it will then become!
So, let me end by saying, “Don’t make me come back there!” No, wait…that’s not helpful. Try this instead. It will also help if EVERYONE involved in selling to or buying for education remembers one thing. Higher education is broken. I’ve talked to educators and administrators from the most famous institutions on the planet. All of them have horror stories of how impossible it is to overcome the baggage, the traditions, the paradigm that is higher education. Not the Ivy Leagues, not the most innovative community colleges and not even the for-profits who were designed to do exactly that. The system is broken and at this point it’s hard to find anyone or any way to fix it. So….we are ALL in the same boat. We are all rowing up a river with textbooks instead of oars, an iPad for a rudder, and every sailor believing they know where we are going but secretly not believing that anyone else does. So let’s do our best for little wins as often as possible. That we can likely make happen.
Good luck and good learning.