Rowing Together, Vendors and CIOs Navigate Tricky Relationships

min read

Key Takeaways

  • Despite a rocky history, higher education IT shops cannot exist without a solid network of vendor relationships because vendors have an increasingly important role in institutional initiatives.
  • Vendors need to know that it often takes a long time to sell a product in higher education, and even longer to establish the partnerships that CIOs are looking for.
  • New sets of increasingly interconnected solutions, many in the cloud, require new ways of working between higher education IT and IT vendors.

On a memorable family vacation I found out my spouse and I are a disaster in a canoe. We could see the distant shore, and in theory we were both paddling to get there. However, we zigzagged across the lake like a slalom skier. On the other hand, my son and his two sisters got from point A to point B in record time and would often be waiting for us on the shore at the next portage. My wife and I, who rarely argue, couldn't seem to get on the same page, while my daughters and son, who have years of battle experience, were completely in sync. This memory came to mind as I was thinking about relationships between CIOs and vendors. Even when things look like they should work, they don't. And sometimes when you think things won't work, they do. It made me wonder, what is the difference?

By 2015, higher education institutions in the United States were on track to spend nearly $6.6 billion a year on IT.1 With approximately two percent of that $6.6 billion outsourced,2 there is a healthy marketplace in higher education IT, and it is growing. However, the fractious and occasionally contentious relationships between higher education CIOs and the people charged with selling them solutions hinders the promises of better service for students, more cost-effective strategies for campus leaders, and a more solid infrastructure for the future.

Fair or not, the vendor often starts from a significant deficit of trust with most IT leaders, who have been burned many times by bad vendor relationships, overly aggressive salespeople, or under-delivered products. Sit and have coffee with CIOs or other campus IT professionals, and the stories quickly turn to bad implementations and sometimes bad actors who came to the institution with great promises only to leave destruction or disillusionment in their wake.

To CIOs vendor problems appear endemic and deeply ingrained. Steve Jobs famously promised products and features long before they existed, and the "marketing" people that Dilbert deals with are in the back of CIOs' minds when they turn their skeptical eyes to vendor promises. CIOs all have stories of a president or vice president fresh from a conference with a new cure-all product they picked up from a vendor. The executive tells the IT staff that the vendor guaranteed the product was ADA accessible, secure, and easy to implement. On closer inspection, the IT staff finds the product is not accessible, secure, or easy to implement.

Despite this history the modern higher education IT shop cannot exist without a network of vendor relationships. Vendors have an increasingly important role in moving institutional initiatives, but sometimes the process of finding a dance partner leaves a CIO feeling like they would just rather not dance. To take the metaphor even further, when you try to match a crowd of typically introverted CIOs with the extroverts who sell IT to higher education, the encounters are not just cross-cultural, they are cross-planetary.

This fractured relationship poses risks to the individuals and the institutions. CIOs have a long list of things they want vendors to know and some clear recommendations for how to make the relationship better. Generally, the problems seem to stem from confusion about who is in charge, what type of vendor relationship CIOs are looking for, and the confusing rules in higher education. The problems are not insurmountable, and both sides could do better. As Mike Barber, the CIO at Montana State University–Billings, said, "Vendors need to take care of us, and we need to take care of the vendor."

Who Is in Charge?

In the canoe with my spouse, both of us thought we were in charge. In my son's canoe, he had the experience, so he steered. When it comes to figuring out who is in charge of IT projects, the role of the CIO has been changing and growing over the past decade. Good vendors recognize that most CIO positions are now more about building a strategic vision for technology in the institution, rather than running a utility. The deployment of technological solutions is a complex mix of change management, strategic vision, partnerships, and mitigating risk. Recently, I was having dinner with a group of CIO colleagues and I started a story with, "They said it wasn't an IT project . . ." Before the final word left my mouth someone at the table said a mantra I have heard again and again in the past two years: "Everything is an IT project."

Often, CIOs perceive that vendors either ignore the fact that in the current digital landscape everything is an IT project, or worse, they actively work around IT. Not bringing in the CIO or the appropriate IT person at the beginning of the project is a clear path to a failed project, a ruined relationship, or worse.

To campus technology professionals, the default setting often is more rules and policies. The logic goes that if people were forced to go through IT to purchase products, or if IT had a mandated role early on in the project, the problem would be solved. However, rules rarely change behavior, and in many cases it is like sending a kid into the toy store with a credit card and saying, "Don't spend any money, just come out and tell me your needs." The kid is going to come out and tell you they want a specific toy because it is all they have ever wanted, and by the time they have picked it up, played with it, and imagined it as their very own, it is very hard for them to step back and tell you about their needs. They just want the shiny object.

CIOs can do a better job of putting clear processes in place. They can also do a better job of arming those that request new technology with the information they need to make better decisions. Sometimes even providing cabinet members or people headed to conferences with a short checklist of things to think about is effective. A little education goes a long way, and the purchaser will feel better about technology and their ability to speak the language. Whether they encounter a packed conference hall or the barrage of new tech tool announcements that come via e-mail, you know they are "going to the toy store"; protect them the best you can.

Vendors can score immediate points by making sure that IT is involved. It saves time down the road to involve IT from the start. To be asked into the conversation is much better than to be dragged in later or, worse, to have to push in when the vendor has sent a contract that requires IT to sign off.

If the person a vendor is talking with isn't bringing IT into the conversation, a vendor can gain immediate street credit and good will by bringing IT into the conversation immediately.

Quick Sales versus Long Relationships

My son had canoed on the lake several times before, but my wife and I were new to the water. That experience makes a difference, and my spouse and I needed time to figure out how to work together. College campuses are places with long memories, and when an IT leader works with an outside organization, they put their own reputation on the line. When IT fails, nobody looks at the vendor, they look to the CIO. Even though tenures have been getting shorter in educational leadership, they are still much longer than in the private sector. Higher education is one of the last places where 30-year employees are not uncommon, and because of emeritus status and alumni, institutional history is rooted deeply. It often takes a long time to sell a product in higher education, and even longer to truly establish the kind of partnerships that CIOs are looking for.

Tim Wrye of Highline College explained it this way:

"I need a relationship manager, rather than a sales manager. With larger vendors, we need someone to be a consistent point of contact in their organization, and help us navigate ongoing maintenance and support issues."

Complicating this is that many of the classic strategies of having an implementation manager or having milestone-based contracts don't work within higher education because of the rules and regulations in state procurement rules or the antiquated purchasing systems common in higher education.

Once IT leaders get to the table, they can clearly indicate the need for a single point of contact. That doesn't always need to be the CIO, and it doesn't always need to be a salesperson. Establishing a solid one-on-one relationship upfront is critical, and finding the right two people is important. As Barber explained,

"It is often the sales or technical representative who can best bring our issues to the appropriate office within a company. To offend your best channel for getting resolution makes any future relationship difficult."

Vendors need to be clear about who to contact and what is needed to make the relationship work. Solid relationships are to the vendor's benefit, according to Dave Daugherty, director of IT at Clark College.

"One thing that we often discover with vendors is the distance within the vendor's own company between their sales force and their product engineers. Most IT shops can sniff out the differences between the two, so if the salespeople are promising one thing and the engineers at the vendor's company are more reserved, then I think most IT shops know there is a problem."

Having a clear line of contact to talk out these issues out is key. While a single point of contract during the negotiation and purchasing phases is necessary, both sides need to be clear about who is going to contact whom and for what as the project proceeds.

CIOs need to look at vendors as sources of professional development. CIOs often have longtime staff members who are charged with day-to-day tasks but don't get a chance to be part of the innovative solutions. Additionally, many non-IT staff are now working in technical jobs that require them to be IT workers. As Barber explained,

"Staff are not prepared for the new way to do business. Additionally, the staff hired to enter data, push paper, etc. are now expected to be knowledge workers making management decisions about the data and how next to treat the data or add value to the data."

Many higher education IT organizations need ongoing professional development. Some IT organizations can become weak because the stability of higher education IT organizations has led to atrophied skill sets.

Vendors will be more successful if they consider the professional development of the client. With these challenges in mind, vendors can take into account that higher education business should include professional development, training, and a real partnership to build the skills of the higher education organization. Facing slashed training budgets and the constant deficit of time, any CIO is likely to appreciate a vendor who can add value to the organization by building the employees' skills.

Brad Christ, CIO of Southern Oregon University, pointed out another key reason for vendors to think about relationships with higher education differently than with private organizations:

"There is a place for consultants, but the cool stuff is projects. We want to let our people do the cool stuff so that we build our teams and keep folks around. We want to be more than high-tech plumbers."

Confusing Rules of Higher Education

Another thing that came into play in the canoe is that it looks easy, but when the paddle hits the water I found out how much I didn't know. There were rules I wasn't aware of, for instance does the person in front or back steer? My son knew the rules, he sat in back, he steered. Wrye stated his main problem as follows:

"I think one of my biggest issues is with vendors who can't seem to understand the regulatory, ethical, and local policy restrictions on our purchasing processes. Salespeople tend to be intent on just pushing the sale as quickly as possible, rather than actually taking time to understand our processes and our needs."

The rules that govern what each institution can do are complex, and often they aren't the same even from school to school in the same state.

Bridget Barnes, CIO at Oregon Health Sciences University, brought up just one example: "Hosted solutions push our boundaries, but the time is ripe to explore these opportunities in a measured way." Data-sharing agreements and the many different laws governing the use of data on college campuses make it a confusing environment for even the sharpest legal mind, and sometimes the rules can appear to conflict. A school like Oregon Health Sciences University has to follow not only all higher education laws but also all health care data laws — a situation not uncommon for universities and colleges with medical centers. Intellectual property of researchers adds yet another level of complexity to these conversations.

Another example of different rules is in accessibility. Clark College was working with a vendor for touchscreen displays, and when the technologist in the Disability Support Services Offices looked at the product, he requested several changes at the code level of the final product. When asked, the vendor pointed out that the system we had purchased was used at one Ivy League school and at many other four-year universities, indicating that it must be good enough for a two-year school in Washington. However, because of our location near the Washington State School for the Blind and our own commitment to accessibility, a product that worked at "more academically prestigious schools" was not going to work for us. The college is not currently using that vendor.

CIOs could solve some problems by simply doing better documentation. Often CIOs rely on their business office or others to communicate their needs to vendors. That covers many issues, but often not the issues specific to technology projects. Being able to e-mail or refer a vendor to a list of project guidelines for working with the college or university can be tremendously helpful. This has to be done in concert with the contracting process, but even sharing an informal list can be helpful because the issues that come up often repeat themselves.

For vendors, there is no substitute for time. It is critical not to assume that one higher education institution is like another. Vendors that take the time to learn a bit about the uniqueness of the institution are likelier to get it right. Another important factor is realizing that the contracting process may take longer in some situations. Not only are most colleges bound to a fiscal year budget with little room for new initiatives until the budgeting process begins on campus, many also have request-for-proposal or other bidding processes that can take several weeks, if not months. Quiet periods are not uncommon, and sometimes no response simply means there is no news.

The High Stakes of Getting It Right

A recent conversation with a group of CIOs about application developers turned to the future of application development. "We are really becoming application integrators," one person explained, talking about the number of new systems being brought to campus. Other recent conversations have focused on Microsoft's and other companies' clear strategy to move business to the cloud, bringing a new set of vendor relationships to the table for higher education. What could all be housed in one data center and supported by technicians before is being replaced by a much more robust set of solutions, but a set of increasingly interconnected solutions, and that means IT organizations have to work with vendors in new ways.

There is risk here for everyone. Many IT organizations have been proud of their ability to handle everything on their own, and most IT organizations were built to be self-sustaining. It is becoming increasingly clear that IT organizations cannot continue to do that. Even if an IT organization could have the hardware and expertise in house, would it be the best thing for the higher education organization? One of the reasons that working with vendors can make sense is that large organizations focused on issues like cloud storage can offer more cost-effective solutions. At a recent presentation a technology officer from a major transportation company even made the case that large cloud storage providers are more secure, because they have teams of analysts and engineers focused on security, where the average company cannot begin to match that level of staffing.

Barber characterized the risk in the relationships this way:

"In general vendors are not our servants; our relationship must be a two-way street. They must meet our needs, but to offend them and cause a caustic working relationship will cause them to do the minimum demanded rather than provide extra services."

He went on to state that in the face of nonperformance, we need to analyze where the deficiency lies. Is it in the product, the service, the development, design, or creation, or the delivery, implementation, or sales presentation? The source of the problem should guide the response.

CIOs need to be realistic about what the vendor can do. Many implementations are not hampered by the technical specifications of the product, but rather by the cultural process changes needed to make the technology work. Vendors cannot fix the cultural problems of the institution, and it is unrealistic to think they can do so. A recent large ERP implementation in the State of Washington provides a good example. Some close to the project privately noted that key to the delays (and disappointment) was the possible vendor view of the regional system as one largely homogenous implementation, when in reality 34 separate entities had spent over 30 years building separate systems. Some of the biggest problems have been getting the institutions to greater standardization, which is not necessarily a vendor problem. It is a cultural problem.

Vendors need to be aware of the political landscape and look to the CIO as a guide. One of the most irritating things a vendor can do is to bring up a subject — or worse, sell a product — to a group without understanding the politics at play. Charles Frankel is often attributed a version of the quote "Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small." To outsiders the politics can be difficult to discern, so finding out the CIO's overall objective and how a particular vendor fits into the big picture is good advice. And, to reiterate, no vendor should ever use an open door to the campus to sell a product that the CIO doesn't know about. At a recent event billed as a training, a well-known, nationally hot data-analytics group took time out to sell two modules that the campus had not purchased yet. Many people left the room confused and excited about the ability to do things they could not actually do. In a case like this the CIO has to explain the reality to several people, and the vendor has a frustrated user base because they did not get what they consider full functionality.

A Better Way Forward

In the end, projects seem to fail for one of three reasons: timing, implementation, or training. All can be cured by taking care of the relationship between the vendor and the CIO.

  • Timing: Failures of timing happen when projects take so long that the feature set is no longer viable. In development, project scope creep leads to a project that never gets done — it is delayed until funding or patience runs out.
  • Implementation: Implementing change in higher education is hard. Failures of implementation happen when vendors and campus leaders do not work together effectively to make sure the solution is implemented before the vendor leaves.
  • Training: Many software packages or services on campus are not used to their full potential because no one on campus understands how to truly use the product. This stems from a failure of training.

Anytime a significant project involves a vendor, CIOs rely on them to be the ultimate experts on their product and what it can and cannot deliver. Higher education IT professionals often do not have the time — and frequently we do not have the expertise — to dissect a product to the code level to make sure it does what the vendor has promised it will do. In the end, even though colleges and universities check references and reviews of products, vendor relationships require a small leap of faith that they will deliver exactly what is needed and promised.

The way forward is together. Private companies can innovate faster than institutions, and there will always be a market for great new solutions. Higher education institutions will always be full of bright people who are passionate about education and improving the lives of students. This goal — the distant shore — is one we can agree on, and when CIOs and vendors paddle together, it is powerful and successful journey.

5 Keys to Success

What CIOs Need to Do

What Vendors Need to Do

Start the conversation early in the process with the right people.

Make purchasing processes clear to everyone on campus so that IT is involved at the beginning.

If the CIO isn't at the table, get them there.

Focus on long-term relationships, not quick wins.

Be clear that you need a single point of contact.

Make clear agreements on who to contact (and when).

Know and agree on the rules of engagement.

Provide clear documentation on purchasing processes.

Set aside the time to learn about the institution.

See the engagement as an opportunity to learn.

Ask vendors about potential professional development.

Ask about, and make specific agreements on, professional development.

See the engagement as an opportunity for mutual gain.

Ask what would benefit the vendor and follow up with good reviews or recommendations when appropriate.

Deliver what is promised, and follow up afterward to find out how things are working.



  1. "U.S. Higher Education Institutions Expected to Spend $6.6 billion on IT In 2015, According to IDC Government Insights," press release, May 11, 2015.
  2. Core Data Service Almanac, EDUCAUSE Core Data Services 2014, February 2015.

Chato Hazelbaker is chief communication and information officer at Clark College. This unique role includes communication, marketing, information technology, and legislative affairs at the two-year campus, which serves over 14,000 students. He previously served in communication and marketing roles at the University of St. Thomas (MN), Crown College (MN), and Montana State University–Billings. As an adjunct professor he has taught organizational development and leadership classes at several institutions. He holds a doctorate in Organization Development from the University of St. Thomas (MN).

© 2016 Chato Hazelbaker. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.