• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.


On a “Less Commercial” EDUCAUSE

An open letter to Joshua Kim in response to two of his recent blog posts.

November 16, 2015

Dear Josh,

This post on Digital Tweed is a response to two of your recent Technology and Learning blog posts. The first, dated November 1st, called for a “calmer, less commercial EDUCAUSE 2016.”  The second, posted the following day (when do you sleep – or have time for your day job at Dartmouth?), was your (faux memo) response to my faux client memo titled “Partner is Not A Verb,” published by EdSurge prior to the EDUCAUSE conference and intended (primarily) for firms doing business with higher education.

Let’s start with your concerns about commercialization at the recent EDUCAUSE conference.  And let's begin by placing the EDUCAUSE conference in proper context.

With respect to you and others who view the pervasive corporate logos and commercial presence at the recent EDUCAUSE conference as impinging on the organization’s “academic” mission: get over it! 

EDUCAUSE and its precursor organizations, EDUCOM (for “academic” computing) and CAUSE (for “administrative” computing), were never “academic” associations and these organizations (current and past) never convened “academic” conferences. 

Rather EDUCAUSE hosts a professional conference for technology personnel who work in colleges and universities, including some attendees who were (or still are) academics. The “academics” include some faculty as well as the small but growing number of CIOs and senior IT officers, including folks like you,  who have come “into IT” positions from academic ranks rather than from the technology side: they are “academics” who have moved over into IT careers rather than “techies” who have moved up the IT ranks.

In 1998, CAUSE and EDUCOM merged to create EDUCAUSE.   The subsequent creation of a single IT professional association for higher education, based on institutional and not individual memberships, has made the fall EDUCAUSE conference the major annual gathering of higher ed’s IT tribes: attendees of all ranks and assignments come from large and small campuses, rich and less-affluent institutions, community colleges and research universities, and also from many other points in-between and across the terrain that is higher education, including the corporations that provide IT products and services to colleges and universities.

Can we agree that there is not much real “research” (or “academic” work) presented at the EDUCAUSE conference?  Rather the vast majority of panel sessions are topical discussions or campus case studies: the focus is often on a pragmatic narrative (“how we did X at Acme College”) as opposed presentations that emphasize rigorous methodology, real data, and thoughtful analysis (as opposed to insightful commentary). 

I’ll confess that it has been several years since I spent a significant portion of my EDUCAUSE conference hours attending panel and plenary sessions.  (How many sessions did you attend in Indianapolis this year, Josh?) However, my hallway conversations with those who do and my annual reading of the conference program confirm a long-held impression that personal and/or institutional experience, plus opinion and epiphany, still account for much of the content of the conference sessions.

As for complaints about the Exhibit Hall, again, please: get over it!  For many IT officers at smaller or less-affluent institutions, the annual EDUCAUSE event is the closest they may get to one-stop viewing (as opposed to one-stop shopping).  The hall provides an important opportunity for planned and random conversations with tech providers (a/k/a “vendors”) and tech users (a/k/a “colleagues”) that are informative and timely, especially as the EDUCAUSE event is at the front end of the higher ed (ops! I almost said “academic”) planning and buying cycle.

Finally, it is important to recognize that the catalyst for much of the “commercialization” you decry is, in fact, EDUCAUSE itself.  EDUCAUSE counts every dollar from every vendor. Moreover, much like airline frequent flyer programs, EDUCAUSE is quite clear that a firm’s annual spending determines the goodies and benefits (such as they are) that the association bestows upon its corporate affiliates (ops, again! I almost said corporate partners here!).  

In fairness, EDUCAUSE really does depend on the corporate money: institutional dues, conference registration fees, and various grants don’t cover the association’s annual expenses.  The fall conference is a major source of operating revenue. Moreover, the 2015 EDUCAUSE budget “project[ed] a deficit of $2.8M dollars and $1.5M in noncash depreciation expense,” to be covered by reserve funds.

And probably less known is that EDUCAUSE does restrict some corporate activities at the annual conference.  For example, it’s okay if someone from Alpha Technologies wants to take to you and few other campus officials to lunch at a local restaurant, away from the convention center.  But had Alpha Technologies wanted to arrange for a private (i.e., closed door) lunch meeting at one of the hotels adjacent to the convention center in Indianapolis last month, Alpha had to secure approval from EDUCAUSE to do so – and that approval was probably not provided.  

Why would EDUCAUSE not allow private lunch meetings? EDUCAUSE Meeting Planner Dan Stones reports that restrictions on private lunches in the hotel meeting rooms controlled by the association “are in place to prevent attendees from being drawn away from event programming, including content-based sessions and exhibit hall hours.”  (source: email from Mr. Stones dated 18 Aug 2015).  I suspect that many conference attendees are not aware of what some might call these “nanny state” restrictions; however, I do know that many EDUCAUSE corporate affiliates find them “unnecessarily intrusive and restrictive” (my polite assessment).

But please know, Josh, that much of the “commercialization” you and others rail against at the EDUCUASE conference is routine and common at other “professional events” for technology personnel in other sectors.  (The ultimate is the annual Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, where evening activities can include large private parties featuring high profile Vegas DJs and concerts featuring rock groups such as Fleetwood Mac, among others.) And truth be told, I suspect that a number of the various academic, institutional, and professional associations at serve higher education view, with envy, the money and accompanying resources EDUCAUSE secures from corporate affiliates for its annual fall conference.

Moving on, let’s discuss, quickly, your (faux memo) response to my six point faux memo, Partner is Not a Verb, intended for the young executives at “Acme Educational Widgets,” ahead of the 2016 education conference season. My faux memo was, admittedly, cautionary. To summarize and to comment

  • Partner is not a verb.
    • You wrote:  “We understand that we need to stop throwing around the word ‘partner.’ But what we can’t figure out is what word to replace “partner” with?”
    • My response:  I would encourage technology providers to think of campus customers as clients.  This may be simple semantics on my part, but to me customer implies one-time, transactional relationships, while client suggests a commitment to a longer term, almost fiduciary relationship 
  • Trust is the coin of the realm
    • You wrote:  “We get that trust is important - but how can we accelerate this trust thing? We at Acme need to operate on a fiscal time scale, not the tectonic time scale that higher ed seems to follow.”
    • My response: My rescue border collie did not trust me the moment she jumped into my car as we left the kennel.  It took time to build that trust relationship. And this is also true of the relationship between technology providers and technology clients across all sectors, including higher ed: building trust takes time.  Admittedly, colleges may (probably) take more time to make big tech decisions because of the committee structure that often involves multiple constituencies.  But campus officials are also understandably concerned about what seems to be the frequent turn of field personnel and corporate executives, an issue reflected in my comments about the recent Ellucian and impending Blackboard sales
  • Concierge, not “Logo Buddy” Relationships.
    1. You wrote: “In our experience with the higher education market, we have come to understand that all colleges and universities think that they are unique. They are doing a favor to us at Acme in deigning to become our customers.”
    • My Response:  Across all sectors and segments, almost all organizations would like to believe they are unique customers and clients.  The key issues here is are (a) don't assume that your “logo buddy” relationships with other firms are always effective and reliable; and (b) if multiple firms are involved in a campus contract, strive to simplify your customer service and support issues so that there is a single, reliable point of contact for the project, as opposed to multiple points for each aspect or part of the project.
  • Know that you are not your client.
    • You wrote:  “We understand that our higher education customers will have very different backgrounds, orientations, and appetites for risk than we have at Acme. We think we can manage that difference. What we at Acme struggle with is figuring out who exactly our client is.  Figuring out who the decision maker is at any given college or university is often an exercise in frustration. It seems that almost everyone on campus has a veto power, but almost nobody has full authority and discretion.”
    • My Response: The issue here is not about who represents the client in the decision-making, but about the real needs of the client.  Across K-12 and higher ed, well-intentioned ed entrepreneurs, often supported by significant venture funding, hope to transform educational experiences and organizations.  But there is often a huge gap between the actual needs of the intended clients and the personal experiences and great aspirations of the well-intentioned entrepreneurs.  So, at the risk of redundancy: it is critical to remember that, in general, you are probably not creating products and services for a version of you and the people you know, but rather for others who are most likely very different from you. And because you are probably not the next Steve Jobs (who listened to very few people), it is really important that you show respect for and listen to your prospective clients if you hope to be effective and successful in either the K-12 or the higher ed market.
  • Understand that your price is not my cost.
    • You wrote: The implementation costs campuses experience are “not the fault of our technology . . . [if] higher education customers were only willing to narrow their project scope and be disciplined about what the technology should do, than implementation costs should be nowhere near the multiples [on the licensing or purchase price] that you describe.”
    • My Response:  Technology providers are not responsible for campus implementation costs.  But providers should acknowledge the often huge gap between what it costs to buy something and what it costs to deploy it: installation, training, user support, and more – costs which may vary across sectors and segments.  Acknowledging and addressing implementation costs can be a catalyst for better product design and support services, and might even provide a competitive advantage.
  • Recognize that the network is neural.
    • You wrote: “Why is it that when something goes wrong with our technology that every customer and potential customers seems to know about the problem within a matter of minutes?  But when things go right nobody ever talks to anyone?  Does the higher education neural network only share bad news?”
    • My Response:  Admittedly, too often it does seem that only the bad news moves across the neural network. But consider the the culture: colleges and universities are, understandably very risk-averse clients compared to other sectors; consequently, negative comments often seem to overwhelm the positive – in reviewer’s comments about journal articles and book reviews and also in user comments about technology products, services, and providers.  But the good news does flow: on listservs, and in phone calls, conference sessions, and hallway conversations, IT officers across campuses really do routinely share the good and the bad news about their relationships with technology providers and their experiences with technology products and services.

As observers and bloggers, Josh, our role is to serve as the loyal opposition – with an emphasis on loyal, not opposition.  My hope for our public exchange is that this will serve as a catalyst for better and more informed conversations about these issues – the EDUCAUSE conference and doing business with higher ed – and that we have helped to aid and inform what should be continuing discussions.

Disclosures:   Blackboard and Ellucian are corporate sponsors of The Campus Computing Project.  And Campus Computing has, on occasion, hosted invitation-only lunch discussion sessions at the annual EDUCAUSE conference.

Follow me on Twitter:   @digitaltweed


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