Context Matters

As I noted in my last blog, I spent last week at an unusual conference (for higher ed, anyway). The best way to describe it is a “match-making” conference, where a company tries to connect vendors with specific stakeholders from higher education based on needs, budgeting, initiatives, etc.

In other words, if you have a solution to sell, the company will try to match you with college or university executives who are seeking such a solution. But all of this is done in and around a conference, complete with keynote speakers and seeing plenty of workshops, round-table discussions, and the like.

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On another positive note for academic executives, the cost of the conference is low as the commercial companies are supplementing some of those costs for the ability to be there. The price? Each executive must participate in 5-6 “speed dates” throughout the conference, meaning they must see and hear 5-6 pitches by solutions providers. I guess you could look at it like needing to sit through the timeshare pitch in order to get the vacation, but the difference is that if you are looking for a solution anyway, why not?

One other benefit was the interaction between participants. Everyone ate together, went to sessions together, and enjoyed the evening activities together. So, in a rare moment of connection, CIOs sat with VPAA’s and Provosts from other universities, talking about challenges and wins and losses and more. But that also saw the vendors sitting along side them as well, also telling of wins and losses and dysfunction and leadership, etc. (If you really want to get a pulse of higher education, find vendors who work with a lot of schools…they often know far more about the state of higher ed than individuals at schools do.)

At one such meal, I encountered a fresh, young entrepreneur who runs a start-up. He had spent his entire year’s marketing budget to come to this affair and he was not happy. Why? Simple. He had expected to find university executives who needed his solution, had budget, and even had previously identified the initiative, to see his product and sign a deal. Everybody would win! Yay…

But of course things do not work that way in higher education. They may work that way in business, seeing deals made on golf courses, in bars, or via this type of conference. But in higher education, it just does not work like that.

So, as kindly as I could, I tried to share some context with this young, aspirational innovator. And by the time I had finished, he asked if I would write all of it down. Consider this blog (which I will send to him immediately) his request, hopefully for the benefit of others. Specifically, I’d like to try and speak to both sides of this, if I might, as I have sat squarely on both sides of the table, over and over again.

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What Solutions Providers Must Remember

First and foremost is something all product owners should remember. It’s been a decade (or more) since colleges and universities had “extra” money to spend. While the short term result of the great recession was that a lot of people went back to school, seeing coffers fill up, the bubble burst very quickly. Now? Good luck finding a person at any school in the land who has money to spend on just about anything. I spoke with a friend / colleague at a State University last week who explained their state funding had gone from 75% down to 15% in a decade. Even those schools with billion dollar endowments don’t have money to spend. Or at least, the people in that system are not allowed to spend any of it. It just doesn’t work that way.

So the thing to remember is this. Every person you will sell to at every school in the land believes the same thing: they are poor. They will be lucky to get 3% added to next year’s budget, unless they are 1 of a handful of projects the executives will (moderately) fund.

Which brings us to our next point. Schools have money to spend only once per year. For the majority of those schools, budgets are set in or around April, seeing initiatives also approved (or not) in May. This allows contracts to be signed so that new initiatives can begin in July, when the fiscal year kicks off. So going to a match-making, sales conference in August and hoping for signed deals is…extremely rare. Like unicorn rare.

Which brings me to my last important point. Nobody at any school does anything without approval, most likely by a committee. While some bemoan shared governance, saying it destroys innovation and makes schools unable to move forward, it is reality. And the more that is about to be spent, the more people are involved. True, many people on these committees may not actually have any knowledge or credible perspectives, but that does not matter. The committee will take ample time to get all of the facts, then and only then making a decision.

There is a reason all of the match-making sessions saw poker faces by the staff and administrators. That is status quo for higher education.

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What Higher Education Executives Must Remember

To my college and university colleagues, it is really important to keep a few things in mind as well. Obviously, the more we realize that our purchasing methods are incredibly dysfunctional and out-dated, the better. As they say, you can’t deal with the problem if you don’t know there’s a problem to begin with. Higher Education purchasing (very much like the bureaucracy-laden government) is not ideal. It has only led to gamification of the system, a lack of agility, and the majority of schools being stuck with poorly designed, disconnected solutions.

Second, as I’ve blogged before, take some lessons from innovation hubs and gurus alike. Putting all of your “innovation” monies into two or three initiatives is silly. But it’s downright stupid when you realize that every year sees 99% of those initiatives fail, meaning funding will not be renewed so that a new set of three more unsuccessful initiatives can be attempted the following year, etc.

What allows companies to innovate? Having a LOT of ideas that get funded in small states. Then, as the idea grows into something good, it is nurtured and fed (yes, with money and people), while twenty other ideas that did not work are put out to pasture without costing much money or time. Of course that means putting money and resources into the system which can be turned on or off at any point, not only in July. And that takes special leadership at the President, Provost, or CIO level, which is rare.

Finally, help out the commercial players by showing some emotion and staying away from RFP’s whenever possible. I know, I know…the rules are the rules. You may not have any choice. And yes, I know they are just as maddening to create and read as they are to respond to. They end up pretending like extreme cases are reality, they dissuade legitimate companies from providing solutions because the solution seems impossible, and they suck an incredible amount of time out of the college / university. (There is a dissertation topic! The amount of time wasted by RFP’s!) All the more reason to find ways to avoid them if you can!

So…whether you are attending an ‘eHarmony’ conference like this one, or a more traditional conference with a vendor floor, just try to remember all of this. We’re all people trying to both make a living and (hopefully) help improve something fundamentally important. Sure, some people care and others may not, but I’ve said again and again that the education companies I worked at saw a far, far greater percentage of people who cared about education than any university I have ever worked for. So let’s just try to work together, human to human, with a modicum of transparency and candor as we go.

Who knows…you might stumble onto the next big thing together.

Good luck and good learning.