Technology won’t solve our problems. Technology is a tool, like a hammer or a saw. A power saw will only make you more efficient at building something—it won’t make you a better designer or a better carpenter.
But that is not what most consulting companies will tell you. Article after article, pitch after pitch, consulting firms will tell you that this or that technology is going to “transform your school” and make your institution “better faster and more competitive.” But, until you know your goals and the outcomes you are striving for, you won’t be able to select the technology you actually need. It would be like going to your tool chest and grabbing a saw before knowing if you need to cut a board or change a faucet.
The view that technology alone is transformational is deeply rooted in the 1990s and 2000s. In those eras, technology had a significant impact on higher education—automating paper processes while making transactions faster and easier to track. Massive amounts of paper disappeared as processes moved online. But, in the end, the technology didn’t transform higher education; it only transformed how day-to-day administrative processes were executed.
Yet, consultants continue to promise technology will “transform your business.” And the technology that firms tell you will transform your business happens to be what is sold by the vendors they are aligned with. Most consultants are experts on how a software package operates within a school, not on how a school operates and delivers value.
Technology enables. Ideas transform.
The world is changing fast. You need to step back and ask: What do I do, now? What do I do to develop and deliver on my institution’s vision and mission? What do I do to deliver value to students for their tuition dollars? What do I do to ensure my students are able to use our institution to become lifelong learners? How do I best prepare my students for a rapidly changing job market that has opportunities for graduating seniors that did not exist four years ago when they were first-year students?
None of these “Now what?” questions are answered simply by implementing an updated software.
To serve our industry, consultants must move away from the techno-centric answer to every question. They must learn to answer the “Now what?” questions schools are asking as they face this tidal wave of change. We need to change our focus from what is simply enabling to what is truly transformational.
Only after these questions are answered can the “How do we do it?” question be answered. The answer to that question doesn’t have to be new software. It can be a change in the business process. Or it can be a change in who the school targets to recruit, what programs it offers, or how it supports its community.
So, now what?
First, institutions need to focus on developing strategies and actions to meet the challenges they face and worry about technology later. To succeed, schools must seek out those consultants and firms that truly understand the business of higher education and how it operates, rather than those firms whose primary expertise is a specific software or technical solution.
To succeed, schools must seek out those consultants and firms that truly understand the business of higher education and how it operates, rather than those firms whose primary expertise is a specific software or technical solution.
Consultants need to start the hard work of understanding how higher education operates and what its challenges actually are. They must change their focus from technology-only solutions to business outcomes. They should only propose a technical solution that supports specific outcomes, and only after those outcomes are well understood.
Consulting firms need to drive their business knowledge lower in the staffing pyramid. The practice of sending in a team of new, industry-inexperienced consultants to do the day-to-day work of the project, with the real experts making infrequent visits should end. Experts should be readily available to guide your institution in creating a strategy as well as sharing their knowledge with the rest of their team.
Clients need to choose only those consulting firms that are willing to build long partnerships with them that go beyond technical implementation. Time and money are too tight to pick a consultant who simply installs your software and walks away.
Institutions need to find partners who will help them answer the “Now what?” questions today, tomorrow, and long into the future. They need partners who understand what they are trying to do, ones that won’t simply hand them a power saw to fix a faucet.