In working with educational technology vendors I follow one cardinal rule: the person across the table could have been me.
This is one of the reasons that I'm weary of the EduPunk crowd, as they don't seem to be terribly interested in a constructive dialogue with the ed. tech vendor community. (See Fast Company, Who Needs Harvard)
From 1998 to 2001 I rode the dot-com bubble, founding and selling a website and selling it to Britannica.com. The idea was that Britannica's new dot-com education division would start a BritannicaU site. I was among the first hires for the EDU division based in San Francisco, a division that folded along with the dot-com division of Britannica once the bubble burst.
While I failed to cash in during the dot-com bubble, I wouldn't trade my 3 years in the for-profit world for anything. It was from this job at Britannica (my business card said senior producer although I was never sure what that meant), I was able to move into higher ed. administration, learning design and program management (I started out as a regular sociology faculty member).
What I learned about life inside the for-profit educational technology / publishing world can summarized as follows:
- Most of the folks working on the for-profit side of educational technology are motivated the potential to improve teaching and learning.
- The vast majority of sales reps, project managers, customer account specialists, developers and technical support people in companies that I have worked with are not primarily motivated by sales or profits. Rather, they are motivated by the opportunity to advance the status quo in higher education. If they were motivated by money then the would not be working in educational technology.
- You can take it as a certainty that the vendor reps that you work with directly are much more frustrated with their company policies, products, and inane corporate strategic decisions then you are. They have a front-row seat to bad decisions by upper management, and are usually powerless to change the corporate direction and unable to admit their frustrations to their clients.
- Many of the people in the for-profit world in fact come from the non-profit educational world. You will be surprised that their backgrounds, interests, and passions will so closely match your own. For this reason, they tend to identify too strongly with their customers, and will be unhappy when they think their companies actions are not in the best interests of the colleges and universities that they work with.
- If you talk to your ed. tech. vendor representative you may be surprised to the degree that they believe in the profit-motive as a motivator for innovation. They have often left the slow and hidebound cultures of academia precisely because of the slowness of traditional institutions to change and innovate. They like that their success or failures can be measured by bottom line evaluations, in hard profit and loss numbers. They will believe, and they will be correct, that it is the for profit educational technology world that is responsible for much of the innovation in higher education.
Keeping these ideas in mind while working with and talking to colleagues from the for-profit world always results in better outcomes for both parties. Seeing your vendor as a colleague, as a fellow educator motivated by improving learning, allows for conversations to be candid, direct and forthright. Treating your representative the way you would want to be treated if you were on the other end of the phone call (or vendor booth) will always result in better information exchange and a stronger relationship down the road.
This is not to say that companies always act in the best interest of their clients, or that we can trust what ed. tech. companies tell us. Trust the people in the companies (particularly the mid-level people), but be weary of the corporate message. In a future post I'll explore how companies can play to the strengths of their dedicated, mission driven employees by giving them the freedom to act more like the educators they are and less like the business people they will never be.
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