Building Your Partner Ecosystem
A few years into my career at Unicon, I attended an LMS conference and found myself to be one of the few vendors in the room amongst faculty and staff. I sat in a session about LMS administration, a fairly benign topic, that turned into a lively debate about how and where to use vendors to help get LMS work done. I felt a bit like a spy in the room, where it was very clear that half of the room felt vendors were a necessary evil (one LMS vendor in particular was widely and enthusiastically discussed), while the other half embraced vendors as partners. At one point in the session, an IT Director stood up and to my surprise, proclaimed Unicon as the best partner relationship they had ever had. This individual specifically used the word "partner" to denote our company’s commitment to working alongside our clients. This moment really stuck with me, and I’ve been working since then to continue to earn that “partner” title.
Today, we find ourselves in the middle of what some have termed "the great resignation". Across industries, employees are leaving their jobs in search of better life balance, more flexibility, or perhaps just to take stock of their lives. These resignations have created gaping holes in institutional ability to fulfill the mission of serving students with easy to use, well-integrated technology. At the same time, technology ecosystems in general are becoming more complicated. Specialized tools and the need for aggregated data across the ecosystem demand skills and experience that can be hard for a school’s IT organization to acquire and retain. These facts together mean it is nearly impossible for learning institutions to fully and successfully manage, maintain, and support their technology on their own.
As I talk with forward-thinking technology leaders in K12, Higher Education, and workforce L&D departments, these folks are developing ecosystems of vendor partners to share their workload. This marries up with the significant shift we’ve seen in many of our client projects in the last 18 months - from deploying tools (install, configure, support) to much more strategic engagements such as future state roadmap visioning, strategic placement of key resources to fill gaps due to departure, and learner-centered strategic planning.
As the work becomes more complex, and the stakes are raised around student retention and success, vendor partnerships play a critical role in an institution's technology delivery. How do you develop a strong vendor ecosystem? And how do you determine the best ways for those vendor partners to be deployed to help you achieve your goals?
Your software vendor ecosystem will consist of the vendors for the tools and platforms you purchase as well as the consultants, service providers, and system integrators who do the hands-on work. Selection criteria for tools and platforms is an entire article in itself, so I’ll be brief: choose tools and platforms with strong implementation service teams and/or strong networks of service providers. Understand the metrics you will use to evaluate the efficacy of the tool or platform once implemented.
On the other hand, when choosing a consultant, service provider, or system integrator, you often have greater ability to choose based on reputation, culture, and engagement fit. When it comes to reputation, do your homework. Ask your network and your network’s network. Get references and call them. Don’t choose your vendor because they have good marketing - get to the heart of their service delivery by asking someone who’s actually seen them in action.
Cultural alignment may seem like a nice-to-have, but I am convinced it is one of the most important predictors of shared success for a client-vendor partner relationship. Have you ever worked with a vendor and thought, "I wish we could just get out of their way"? Or the reverse: "this vendor just doesn’t get us." As a values-based organization, we have delivered the biggest impact working with clients who embrace and share our cultural characteristics. Vendor partners vary, but I’ll assert that true partners: are always about shared success; are transparent, even when it’s painful to be so; approach knowledge transfer as an engagement partnership process, NOT a milestone; and want to remain engaged from the strategic work at the beginning through the implementation.
Finally, consider engagement fit. If your service provider or SI is managing a tool or platform implementation, consider where they can provide expertise or specialized skills that your team is lacking. Consider how you can take advantage of strong project or program management across implementations. Consulting partners with deep experience in education technology can be used tactically, to fill in short or medium-term roles that need to be backfilled due to departures. Consulting partners can also be used strategically, to evaluate a change in strategy or perform a deep dive on an emerging need. The good ones will also stick around to help you through your implementation and change management activities.
When I look at the client engagements our Market Development team closed last week, I see a clear pattern: 100% repeat clients with engagements like strategic evaluations, strategic staffing, custom application support, implementation consulting, and managed services renewals. These are not discrete, one-time projects. These are impactful partnerships. Whether you are building your vendor ecosystem to maintain your tech portfolio, to fill in gaps in your workforce, or to develop and implement new strategic programs, look beyond the vendors to identify the partners who want to work alongside you to help achieve your goals.