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The Vendor Solution | Feature

Funding Campus IT: The Partnership Strategy

How colleges are reaching out to manufacturers and service providers to help fill IT infrastructure budgeting voids.

It's been several years since Olin College of Engineering set up its core IT infrastructure, but Joanne Kossuth, CIO and vice president for operations, clearly remembers the role that Nortel (whose enterprise solutions business was acquired by Avaya in 2009) played in the setup of the school's fully converged, end-to-end IP network. Through the system--a first for the educational space in the early 2000s--the Needham, MA-based institution's students, faculty, and staff communicate collaboratively across campus.

"Everything from our phones to our soda machines are on the network," said Kossuth. From Nortel, the school secured discounted equipment, student internships, experts who gave "tech talks" on campus, and the sponsorship of five senior consulting projects at an estimated cost of $35,000 to $50,000 each.

The Vendor Solution Series

Traditional vendor-higher education relationships were built on the premise of giving out money in exchange for goods. Today's competitive funding environment requires a more creative approach and finds more colleges turning to IT manufacturers for funding, support, and resources. In this series we'll look at how three different schools have successfully funded IT infrastructure changes with the help of their vendors, tell how the processes worked, and the benefits they've reaped as a result.

This article is the second in a three-part monthly series, "The Vendor Solution." Read part 1 here. Part 3 will be published in May.

In return, Nortel got a showcase campus that it used to leverage additional business within the higher education space. Kossuth said Olin's status as a new school--open since 2002--made it an attractive target for corporate support. "It's not every day that a vendor gets to build a new school out from scratch," said Kossuth, whose department focused only on those vendors that "wanted to form long-term relationships," as opposed to those that were looking for the one-time sale.

"We wanted to build partnerships that would benefit faculty, students, and staff," said Kossuth, who had formed similar alliances while working at other institutions, "and that would give vendors the chance to showcase their wares in the educational setting."

Getting to that point typically requires a first step on the college's part, said Kossuth. "That's not to say we don't have vendors calling on us daily," she added, "but there's a difference between the companies that call you and the ones you really want to talk to."

In taking the initiative with the latter, Kossuth said she seeks out individuals who are "high up on the food chain" in the vendor community. In some cases that person is the regional sales representative and in others it's the head of higher education sales. "It definitely takes some upfront investigation and networking to get to the right person," said Kossuth. "Once you make the connections it becomes somewhat of a dating courtship--with a lot of meetings, phone conversations, and e-mail exchanges."

Getting financial support from vendors also requires a solid answer to the question: What's in it for us? When working with Nortel, for example, Olin focused on its innovative strategies for training tomorrow's engineers. It's a slant that Kossuth knew would hit home with the engineering-focused organization. "Nortel saw engineers not only as potential employees," said Kossuth, "but also as individuals who would at some point impact the wider industry that the manufacturer [operates] in."

It also helps to be straightforward about the college's financial and/or equipment needs. After a few conversations with Nortel's representative, for example, Kossuth presented her case. "To launch the negotiating phase," said Kossuth, "We told them, 'Look, we know you guys have MSRPs, and we're looking for at least 50 percent off of those prices. That was our starting point."

To gain the best possible bargaining position, Olin also sent RFPs to Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Interra Systems, all of which the school was already working with on some level. Each RFP included a "partnership section" detailing Olin's intention of developing a mutually beneficial relationship with the selected vendor and asked for vendor input on the matter. Only after completing a sample network design, reviewing each vendor's executive briefing, and ascertaining the partnership potential of each manufacturer did Olin select Nortel as its vendor.

Looking back, Kossuth said the biggest challenge for colleges looking for financial support, equipment discounts, and donations from their vendors is the sheer amount of time it takes to put these types of relationships together. "It takes a lot more than a single phone call or letter to get these things in motion," said Kossuth. "These relationships require care and feeding and they definitely take time to develop."

Kossuth and her team will be keeping that advice in mind in 2012-2013 as they examine Olin's 11-year-old IT infrastructure and decide which components are in need of replacement or upgrades. "We'll likely complete an entire network replacement within the next two years," said Kossuth. "We've already started to 'dance' with Avaya, Juniper, and Alcatel-Lucent in anticipation of another good partnership."

Joanne Kossuth's 5 Vendor Funding Tips

  1. Go into it with the goal of creating a long-term relationship.
  2. Get ready to make a lot of phone calls, attend meetings, and communicate via e-mail and mail with your future partners.
  3. Be straightforward about your institution's financial needs and expectations.
  4. Always include a "partnership section" in your RFPs.
  5. Be ready to offer up something in return: Remember that true partnerships are "win-win."


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