Establishing Effective Relationships with Vendors

min read

When approaching a project that significantly impacts the campus data and technology infrastructure, IT leaders need to understand the vendor's capabilities, but it is equally crucial for leaders to assess their institution's IT and workforce capabilities.

man and woman handshake
Credit: Igogosha / © 2019

When managing campus data and technology infrastructure, IT leaders will inevitably find themselves working with a number of vendors to help address institutional needs. With so many different systems from so many different vendors, the IT infrastructure can quickly become like a jungle. It is vital to choose partners that understand their role within the complex ecosystem on your campus. It is equally important for IT leaders to honestly evaluate their IT organization's technical capabilities and the institution's overall culture and readiness for change. Your relationships with vendors should be true partnerships where your success and theirs are intertwined.

Examining vendor relationships with a critical eye starts with asking the right questions. While this may seem obvious, the rush to begin implementing a new technology platform or an updated set of tools often results in skipping this fundamental step. For example, many people recognize that most initiatives that fail do so because of absent or inadequate planning, yet implementation work is often started before specific outcomes, goals, and metrics have been agreed upon. Answering the question "What does success look like?" can be harder than one might think.

The following questions about planning and prioritization are based on years of experience and analysis working on both sides of the campus/vendor relationship.

Questions to Ask Vendors

  • What is your approach to planning for each phase of our work together?
  • How will you determine my institution's readiness for our identified project(s), and how will you adjust your approach accordingly?
  • How will you get to know my campus and truly understand what makes us different?
  • How will you help my campus with change management?
  • What is your approach to communication and coordination between vendor and campus teams?
  • Who do you recommend including in the selection decision to maximize buy-in from the start?
  • How can we avoid potential complications from mis-set expectations?
  • How do best practices and research inform your solutions?
  • How should we collectively agree on measures of success and ultimately measure ROI?
  • In your experience, does my institution seem to understand the level of campus commitment required for a successful implementation?

In addition to preparing questions to ask your external partners, it is critical for the project team to be able to answer a series of internally facing questions. As you examine your institution's capacity and readiness—and the campus culture—you will likely find that your institution treats technology initiatives as one-off projects that have a clear start and finish. But that is not how things work in reality. Instead, technology initiatives (especially data-related ones) are more likely to be spirals where each iteration results in improvement, but each "project," while having clearly identified milestones throughout, never really ends.

This pervasive one-and-done attitude about technology work is confronted in the question set below. The following questions can be used as a starting point to assess your institution's readiness for any new data project.

Questions for the Project Team to Answer

  • Are we committed to approaching this project with an eye toward long-term operational change versus approaching this as a "one-and-done" project?
  • Is this initiative properly prioritized and resourced? Who will be the project manager?
  • Do we have a "champion" with strong cross-campus relationships on our team? Drawing upon the whole institution's workforce, who should be members of the cross-campus team?
  • How ready is our general workforce for using new technologies and for the change that comes with it? Does our workforce have the technical skills and the open-mindedness to work with the new technology? Is our IT team equally prepared?
  • What is the quality of our data? Every institution has some bad data, but it is important to honestly assess how bad your data is to begin with so that steps can be taken to improve it, and so that improvements can be properly measured.
  • How will we address change management?
  • Is the president and/or provost committed to this work?
  • Is this effort part of an existing initiative or one that will be created? How is this work connected to our strategic plan?
  • What integrations are required? Do we know the level of effort involved in creating and maintaining those integrations?
  • How will we measure success?

When contemplating a new technology initiative, you should not only evaluate the vendor's capabilities but also look at your institution. Does your institution have the necessary technical skills in both your IT operation and in your workforce to successfully implement and use the technology? How well does your institution navigate change? The questions presented here are not meant to be exhaustive lists of things to ask or to answer, but to help ensure any new vendor relationship begins with a strong foundation—ultimately leading to joint success.

For more on enterprise IT issues and leadership perspectives in higher education, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Enterprise Connections blog as well as the Enterprise IT Program page.

Brad Hough is Vice President of Information Technology and CIO at Logan University.

Nicole Melander is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Campus Lab.

© 2019 Brad Hough and Nicole Melander. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.