Karlyn Morissette blogged earlier this week about why (and whether) consultants outside higher education seem to get more respect than knowledgeable employees. Given the complexities of any college, working with vendors or outside partners tends to unfold like some kind of international negotiation.
Tom Peters remarked way back in the ’90s that, in the business world, what would matter was not the size of your staff, but the size of your network. The trends of flexible staffing and ad hoc work teams assembled for a single project have grown as he predicted, and today the Internet means our knowledge bases — which on places like Twitter may include what we once called competitors — are available at the touch of a button.
Yet I was working with an outside vendor/partner for an event this week and couldn’t help noticing how every communication seemed an opportunity for misunderstanding. I’ve worked on this campus for nearly eight years, and there are still countless things I don’t understand. So imagine someone from the outside trying to help coordinate an event — without stepping foot on campus, this terra incognita.
Those on a campus know the landscape of people, priorities and politics that may make no sense to an outsider. The vendor didn’t always understand what I was in charge of (very little), how big an internal team I had (not enough) nor why what they found a perfectly reasonable suggestion had no chance of working within our world. Successful vendors must have the patience of a saint to wait out an institution’s labyrinthian approval processes. Long-distance partnerships provide additional strain when you have difficulty reaching people in other cities and time zones; it’s so much easier when I can walk down the hall or take a quick elevator ride.
Curiously, I had valuable project-based discussions from the campus side via social media — student participants are easier to reach via a Facebook message than email. None of the vendor partners are on (or available on) social media, and I don’t know that trying to Facebook friend someone for a one-off makes sense. That I was able to take care of many details on our end — from planning to interacting with journalists — via social media testifies to its ability to interact quickly and clearly. (And I’m getting spoiled by the ability to ask questions on Twitter and receive great answers within mere minutes.)
As long as we have institutions of higher learning, we will always have — and need — to work with outside partners. The learning curve in such arrangements is always steep, but maybe social media is one way to help flatten it. We sure need something to bring worlds together.