Technology & the Community College

Technology & the Community College >> Pulling in Tandem

When it comes to campus/vendor partnering, community college administrators must be especially savvy and resourceful in order to achieve that wonderful synchronicity of purpose that spells: Success!

Pulling in TandemPart I: Hardware

Several years ago, Southwest Virginia Community College administrators signed a lease contract for 17 multifunction copy/fax/scan/print machines, including supplies and service, and deployed them across the campus. Eva Estep, telecommunications coordinator at the college, was put in charge of managing the devices, which were hooked into the school’s network. She admits now that she rues the day those contracts were signed. But why? After all, Estep calls the equipment “fantastic”—far superior to machines the school had leased before.

“We had a contract with the same company three years earlier,” she explains, pointing out that service then had been unimpressive. Yet this time around, with attractive equipment and satisfactory pricing, school administrators decided to sign up once again. “The vendor promised it would respond to every problem we had before.” But the company hasn’t, and to make matters worse, maintenance software included with the machines does not work. That means Estep can’t manage the devices from her desk, including managing fax lines and maintaining e-mail addresses and accounts. (She says the company claims she’s the only person who has ever actually tried to use the software.) So the harried coordinator has had to create program workarounds to achieve the functionality promised (guaranteed) by the vendor. Moreover, when any of several appointed key operators from the school calls the vendor directly to order copy supplies (which is how the contract was set up), the vendor representative insists that the school doesn’t exist in the company’s database of customers. When supplies finally are sent, they’re accompanied by an invoice (as though the school were a non-established account). Not surprisingly, Estep says that if the school goes with the same vendor on the next copier contract, she’ll refuse to have anything to do with it.

Does this scenario sound uncomfortably familiar to you? Maybe as a community college IT manager or director, you try to keep business relationships at arm’s length when you deal with hardware vendors. Possibly, you have little interaction with vendors, or if you do, maybe you prefer to simply bounce from vendor to vendor if service, support, or performance is disappointing. (In the minds of many IT managers, the purpose of a relationship with a hardware vendor goes no further than getting the best deal you can; it’s purely transactional.) At best, you may believe you can only depend on a contract to define how you and the vendor will work together.

Yet, is this enough? Is there a way to establish a different kind of relationship with your hardware vendors? One that’s open-ended, based on consistent one-toone interaction, and built on a base of mutual trust and respect? If there were, your school just might be able to transform itself in ways that go far beyond the purchase of equipment or technology.

SCC: Mutual Back-Scratching Is a Good Thing

Ross Davis is general manager for SCCtv, a Seattle, WA, educational and community television station, part of the Seattle Community Colleges district. Davis maintains he could not do all that he and his team must do without understanding the essence of good partnering—and that extends to vendor partnerships, as well.

From bandwidth to bonanza. In fact, five years ago, through collaborations with the city of Seattle and the University of Washington, the district ended up with a massive amount of bandwidth, says Davis. The only question, he adds, was how best to use it. That’s when Davis (then the district’s director of communications and fund development), along with three other campus administrators, instigated a scheme whereby the district could develop a service that would help not only Seattle students, but a lot of other people as well. The result was SCCtv, and the station now broadcasts educational courses 24 hours a day via two channels and the web. Those broadcasts cover the entire 50,000-student district, which includes three colleges and five learning systems. But they also provide a transport mechanism for rich video and audio streams for 77,000 K-12 public schools and 800 colleges around the world. The current mission of SCCtv, says Davis, is to deliver rich media to colleges that can’t afford, or don’t need, to build their own systems.

Vendor partnering is key. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and partnering was key to success. But by expanding beyond the boundaries of its own campuses to the community it serves, SCCtv was able to attract the participation of a number of vendors (predominantly hardware providers) including Dell, Hitachi Data Systems, Cisco Systems, and even software giant Microsoft.

Ross Davis

"If you can show companies how their help
can benefit education, and at the same time
you can do things that benefit those
companies, you should do it."
— Ross Davis, SCCtv

Still, it wasn’t easy. In the early days, Davis got used to being turned down for equipment and software requests. “The need for free software, for instance, was so large that even Microsoft, as big a company as it is, couldn’t really help,” says Davis. “Every college and school in the country was asking for help, and Microsoft couldn’t possibly give that.”

Cisco actually was the first company to come on board and support the vision of SCCtv, recalls Davis. Davis was explaining to the district’s Cisco service rep his idea of broadcasting course material via TV and the web. “He was the one who said, ‘I think Cisco will help if you make sure your services are available to everybody,’” says Davis, adding that the support from Cisco led him to present the idea to the school’s chancellor and board of trustees. “I told them that if we had a mission that went beyond our colleges, I thought these companies would come on board and help us,” Davis recounts.

The school proceeded to modify its mission to reflect service to education, not just for Seattle, but also for the world. “But this was not a huge leap,” Davis explains. “It represented what our colleges were already doing. And when it became clear that we could deliver these new services to everybody who wanted to use them, and at costs they could afford, that made quite a difference.” (SCCtv doesn’t make a profit by providing its services to other schools; the goal is to cover the expense of the 11-person staff and the equipment it needs.)

And of course, Cisco did respond, by helping the district design its network and by providing discounts on routers and networking equipment. Other technology providers soon followed: Dell came through with servers (which have increased from 23 to 39 over the years) and, on the software side, Microsoft has provided “almost all the software we’ve ever needed or wanted,” says Davis. Both vendors also came up with sponsorship money and consulting services to help Davis’ team develop efficient ways to encode video on the web sequentially, without buffering problems, and then deliver it to the schools that tap into the service. And Hitachi provides 7700- series Freedom Storage equipment “at a huge savings.” Thanks to the contributions of Hitachi, says Davis, the SCCtv operation is moving from 8 to 25 terabytes of storage, which means it can expand its archival holdings.

Grabbing vendor attention. How does Davis approach technology providers? He readily admits his staff doesn’t write grant proposals. He says he introduces himself to potential vendor contacts at conferences such as League for Innovation in the Community College events, writes letters, and sometimes just calls. It doesn’t always work. “Some big companies we’ve approached won’t help,” says Davis. “Their approach has been, ‘Give us money and we’ll help.’ But we don’t have any money.”

FLASH!

Davis at the Seattle Community College television station SCCtv says his team tries to figure out what potential vendor partners need, and then makes sure that those needs jibe with the institutional mission. Money isn’t everything: The colleges can offer testimonials based on experience using vendor equipment; SCCtv can produce videos about using the equipment, and can even develop interactive training.

Making the pitch. What can SCCtv offer, if not money? “We try to figure out what these companies need,” Davis explains. “And we make sure that their needs jibe with our mission.” If they’re looking for word of mouth, he says, “We offer to be speakers on their behalf; we can do testimonials based on our experience using their equipment.” If they need to get a credible message out there, says Davis, “We can produce videos about using their equipment or software. As they have helped us, we can speak up for them. We can even develop interactive training,” he offers, explaining that SCCtv did just that for Hitachi. And the payoff for the companies that partner with SCCtv is clear: Davis does everything possible to publicize the help SCCtv receives from its partners. “We’re using their software or hardware, so why shouldn’t we tell people how well it works?”

And why shouldn’t they help the vendors with a little internal marketing as well? Only a month ago, Davis was in Round Rock, TX, “showing Dell execs how we’ve used their server contributions in education,” he says. “It was a private meeting; I just wanted to make sure they understand how well we’ve used their resources.”

The bottom line, says Davis: “These companies are full of great people who want what everybody else wants. If you can show them how their help can benefit education, and at the same time you can do things that can benefit those companies, you should do it.”

SVCC: Soft Skills Rule

Southwest Virginia Community College, with about 4,000 students (2,500 of them full-time), is rurally located in Richlands, VA. Yet, since July 2005, the college has provided its campus community with a voice over IP telephony system that would be the envy of many Ivy League schools. That system gives the school connectivity with the rest of the state and, eventually, as VoIP becomes increasingly ubiquitous, with the entire world. At its most basic level, it enables the 650-person faculty and staff to make long-distance calls as if they were dialing local numbers; these are actually routed through Cisco switches in any of the 23 community colleges in the state.

FLASH!

For Southwest Virginia Community College, people skills were paramount in partnering. A vendor’s reps were good listeners, brought back solutions that fit, did an excellent job of communicating them, and even helped the school’s finance VP create PowerPoint presentations he could take back to the board for funding approval.

“Our cost reductions came pretty quickly,” says Richard Hudson, vice president for finance and administration. What didn’t come as readily was laying the groundwork that could support the VoIP system: The school had to modernize its entire network. That work began as far back as six years ago, when the Virginia Legislature voted to modernize the technology being used in agencies and education facilities across the state.

Dimension Data was one of many companies included on a preferred provider list compiled by the state to provide networking support and reselling during the modernization effort. (Headquartered in South Africa, Dimension Data has offices in 35 countries around the world, including three in the state of Virginia.)

People skills are paramount in partnering. It wasn’t the company’s technical expertise, but rather the people skills displayed by Dimension Data representatives that won Hudson over. From the beginning, he says, “They were very good listeners. They brought us solutions that made a lot of sense, and did an excellent job of communicating them. They even helped me create PowerPoint presentations I could take back to our board, to help get funding on this.”

Such “tools” were especially important considering that the project, which entailed rebuilding the campus’ entire network (initially projected by the school to cost around $100,000), was finally estimated to come in at $450,000.

“I thought the president would have a hemorrhage,” recalls Hudson. But Dimension Data put together proposals to clearly demonstrate to school administrators what the bare minimum technology requirements were, in order to feed VoIP service to every building on the campus.

After the board approved the project, SVCC’s Estep (yes, she of the leased copier woes) was put in charge of the installation. “I take my job extremely seriously,” Estep insists. “If you don’t have a dial tone, I’m the one who looks bad,” she says. “Dimension Data understood how serious I was about that.”

Happily, the relationship that Estep has with Dimension Data couldn’t be more different from the one she has with the copier vendor. “This relationship is built on trust and respect,” she says. “We really clicked and worked well together. It’s more than just a partnership with them; we’ve formed a bond.”

Estep seconds Hudson’s belief that soft skills have played a large role in the success of the relationship. “I know a lot of technogeeks,” she says. “They know how to program and build any kind of network. But they don’t necessarily communicate well, nor do they always comprehend what we’re trying to tell them. These folks [at Dimension Data] have those ‘people’ skills, and they’re as important as the technical skills.” Of course, Hudson also credits Estep and her project management skills for much of the positive outcome of the VoIP project.

Look for low turnover. Finally, a last success factor cannot be ignored: There was very limited personnel turnover at both Dimension Data and the college over the course of the six years it took to perform the entire upgrade. (By comparison, in half that time, the copier company has placed three different reps in charge of its contract with the college.)

Pulling in Tandem

LOW VENDOR PERSONNEL
TURNOVER
was critical to the
success of a 6-year telecom
upgrade at SVCC.

Payoff. What did all the years of preparation and solid partnering yield? “We were a real success story,” Hudson reports. “We had old phones on the desk in the morning and the new phones on the desk in the afternoon. We left the old phones on the desk for a day, for people who didn’t have the training. But in one day, we were cut over.”

And from a strategic vantage point, “Our students benefit,” says Hudson. “By having [this technology]—particularly out in the country—we’re preparing our students for the kinds of jobs they’re going to be walking into.” This kind of technology advantage can’t help but give the institution a competitive edge. In fact, solid campus/vendor partnering practices extend from the institutional right down to the personal level.

People involved in campus/vendor partnering situations “need some oldtime skills,” Hudson underlines, advising campus administrators to trust their gut instincts about those first critical interactions with vendor reps. “They need to be gracious,” he warns. After all, “You need to be able to trust them. You’re empowering them with your school, and with your career.” [Join us next month for Part II: Software.]

WEBEXTRA :: Research and evaluate potential vendors with a well-crafted Request for Proposal.

We want to hear from you! Has a vendor partnership made a difference on your campus? E-mail us at editors@campus-technology.com.

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