A dependency upon relationships is just as true for the survival of organizations as it is for the individuals involved. Institutions typically originate because of a purpose that extends beyond their own continued existence. The interactions with their community — whether local or global, physical or virtual — depend on some level of partnering with the people or other organizations involved. While partnerships between higher education institutions and vendors are numerous and necessary, there are too many examples of frustration and failure. Why are truly successful partnerships so difficult to achieve and maintain?
Over the last 30 years, I have had the opportunity to be involved in such partnerships from a variety of perspectives:
- Part of an organization wanting to provide opportunities for students to gain experience;
- A faculty member wanting to develop research activities;
- An administrator trying to manage expectations and commitments; and
- Part of a vendor team working to provide enterprise solutions.
These experiences have given me the opportunity to see what challenges exist for vendors in forming successful partnerships with higher education institutions. Not surprisingly, miscommunication along some parameter is often an issue. There are some basic questions that should be answered similarly by the parties involved. This is not about how to draw up good contracts, but it is about thinking through how things will work best. For the purposes of this article, we are not considering a simple purchase transaction (although the principles still apply), but instead looking at an ongoing partnership with a purpose.
What are we trying to do?
It is not likely, necessary or perhaps even desirable for the vendor and the institution to have the same goals; the two entities exist for different reasons. However, they should have goals that are compatible. Furthermore, everyone should know why a particular partnership makes sense for both parties. Each side needs to know why partnering makes sense for them, but also why it makes sense for the other.
The more closely aligned and mutually supportive the goals are, the more easily trust will be extended. Trust is an essential component of any successful relationship.
What is each side going to provide?
Although it would seem to be self-evident, everyone needs to know what needs to be done and who will be doing it. The level of formality needed is directly related to the criticality and/or risks involved.
Who makes which decisions?
This can also be viewed as, “Who is in charge of what?” Since decision making in higher education institutions often involves committees and review processes, it can be challenging for vendors to understand the path and the “power centers” involved in arriving at a final determination. This also makes clear as to how questions and disagreements will be resolved.
What else do I need to know?
Every partnership has a dynamic context that requires a two-way information flow. For example, if the vendor is aware of factors influencing the institution (e.g. budget pressures), they can be included in considerations. Similarly, if the institution is kept aware of development and marketing activities and plans, it is easier for them to plan.
Recognition of these communication challenges and needs can be the first step toward resolving some of these problems, but the wiser course of action is to take specific steps to avoid or mitigate risks.
In the midst of a challenging negotiation to develop a large collaborative enterprise with a foreign government, an attorney told me that, “If both sides want this partnership to work, and you behave as if you want it to work, it will work.”
I think she was right.
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