Higher Education is on a jet-powered ride to a brand-new world and the models schools have used to run their institutions for decades simply don’t work anymore. To survive and thrive, every institution must transform some, or all, of the ways it operates.
Technology Mistaken for Innovation
For many leaders, transformation means installing the newest software. But, in the end, all they have done is attach new-world technology to old-world processes, and they are no better off than when they started. These leaders miss opportunities to forge new paths, to set new goals, to rise to the challenges of the new world around them.
This technology-based approach to transformation in higher education is driven by the Consultant/Vendor/IT complex with its iron triangle of vendor-partner consultants, technology vendors, and university IT shops. Many consultants have a vested interest with partner software vendors and will try to convince schools that their future success and sustainability depends on selecting their preferred vendor’s software.
Generally, IT shops are structured to do one thing—install and support software. Academic leadership has bought into the concept that change and innovation are purely based on technology, so they are all too ready to listen to what their IT group recommends. They are eager to accept the consultant’s recommendation that a new software is what is needed to move their school forward—but that is not always the case.
Over and over again, institutions reach out to consultants and get the same answer: “Buy this new software! It will solve all your problems!” It’s an answer that excites institutional leadership. As a result, they purchase the software.
The mandate for “transformation” is driven through the whole organization. For up to two years the institution works hard to implement the new solution only to be no better off than when they started. By the time the new software is in place, the market has moved on and the situation has changed. In the end, the institution has simply put one more block on a teetering technology tower, ready to collapse at the slightest touch. The institution’s technology portfolio doesn’t properly support their operations or strategy and is so inflexible that it prevents any change of direction.
And then, the cycle starts all over again. The winners in this story are the consultants, the software vendors, and the IT shop. The losers are the institution. Higher Ed struggles on, lugging all this technical debt and leaving students to navigate through contradictory and non-supportive systems.
How Do We Break the Cycle?
The answer is simple: Don’t hire consultants.
That’s right. Don’t hire consultants. Hire strategic partners.
You may be thinking “all consultants sell themselves as strategic partners.” But there is a significant difference between a true strategic partner and a consultant. It is the difference between an architect and a contractor.
A true strategic partner is the architect. Architects put their clients’ needs first and are focused on their goals. They are trained to analyze a client’s site or problem and design a structure that best fits the site or solves the problem. They work closely with their client to develop a fit-for-purpose design, and they develop their design and draw the blueprints with that client’s unique needs and goals in mind. They understand their client’s budget, the long-term cost of ownership of their solution, and the need to demonstrate a return on investment on the project. Only when all these items are understood and in place do they engage a contractor.
The consultant is the contractor. Consultants are best at following a predetermined blueprint to build the structure. You wouldn’t hire a contractor to design your house. Their expertise is carpentry, plumbing, and electric. Like a building contractor, consultants have a deep understanding of configuration, programming upgrades, and testing, not structural design and architecture. We need to stop hiring contractors to do an architect’s job. Institutions must find a strategic partner to develop the solution, and only then should they hire a consulting partner to implement whatever technology solution—if any—is required to achieve that goal.
How Do You Find a Strong Strategic Partner?
Before you start any innovation or transformation journey, you must be crystal clear on what your goals are. It is vital for the success of your institution to define those goals, independent of any technology solution.
For example, define your goal as “I need to improve my student’s experience,” not “I need to replace my SIS system.” If you understand what your overall goals are—independent of a technology product—you stand a much better chance of meeting the strategic goals you have set out to achieve.
Once you have clearly defined your goals, start looking for your strategic partner. When looking at a potential partner, first understand how strongly they are allied with a software.
A good strategic partner won’t have strong ties to a specific solution or set of solutions. They will be free to help you build a pathway that is right for you, not for the vendor.
Next, when you are selecting a partner, observe their approach. Do they try and understand what the strategic goals are for you and your institution? Or do they jump to a technology-based approach?
You need someone who listens and understands what you are trying to achieve, not someone who will come in with pre-determined answers.
They need to be able to work with you to layout an effective approach to meeting your goals, even if that doesn’t require new software.
Finally, clearly understand how they will support you though your journey.
A partner will be with you from the start and is committed to you for the long haul.
If a technical solution is required, a partner understands your goals well enough that they can help guide you to the technology solution and an integration consultant that works best for you.
This “find a partner, not a consultant” approach means not only changing how and when we create our strategies. It changes how we respond to the market and how we relate to technology. We need to create structures where strategies are designed and implemented quickly, with a firm focus on the destination. Having these clear goals and flexible structures makes for a successful partnership, which results in effective initiatives that are truly transformative.
Stop hiring consultants. Start hiring partners.