colleges are from mars, vendors from venus.

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.



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4 responses to “colleges are from mars, vendors from venus.

  1. When I tell people that I am an ABD in folklore, they often wonder how that could possibly be relevant to what I’m doing today. But I find myself relying constantly on approaches and techniques that I learned in my classes as I consult. Part of the challenge of being an effective consultant is appreciating and embracing an institutional culture, which is sure to be different at Oswego than it is at (say) Princeton. Social media are invaluable today, but it all starts from paying attention–adopting “beginner’s mind”–and valuing the partnership with people on campus who can help to move a project forward.

  2. Michael Stoner – I continue to be amazed at your eclectic background. Some sort of background in folklore or even cross-cultural communication would be helpful in working with various campuses. When I took on my current role 4 or 5 years ago, I had to wade hip-deep into a project working with IT, and that was a completely alien culture to me at the time (even though I’d been involved in online and social media for several years). So, even on campuses, we have cross-cultural communications challenges.

    Tim – Your insight would have proved valuable for my post on the value of in-house communications. Sounds like your experience was a valuable life lesson.

  3. This is another reason why I dislike the overuse of outside vendors. Yes, if you need to, go for it – in a specific (read: both what you want them to do that you cant and in your air tight SOW) well integrated and RFP’ed way. But, every email you get (or the thousand that are internally forwarded to you) need not turn into a partnership.

    I’ve grown this distaste (more so, distrust) for vendors in previous positions, but its more than tripled in my new higher ed position. They seem to be multiple and ravenous. I’m actually sick of the emails and pitches for social media in higher ed and the like. I automatically delete them or say ‘No’.

    That being said, I feel bad for the good vendors out there who really have a great service and edge on their competition. All the other swine make them look bad and that’s truly unfortunate.

  4. insidetimshead

    MICHAEL: Funny you saw that, because a good friend of mine works at Princeton and describes it as more ‘corporate.’ But then just differences between our culture and New Paltz, despite similarities, are likely striking. I like your folklore analogy, especially because institutions traffic in their legends/traditions as much as (more than?) actual history.

    ANDREW: You’re right in that every area of our campus has its own subculture as well — speaking academese, techie, numbers, etc. And sorry I missed your post the first time around. I agree.

    JESS: I’m with you. Many of my comments on Karlyn’s original questions were similar. Great use of ‘ravenous,’ btw, and I’m also tired of ‘social media experts,’ with no evidence of qualifications, following me on Twitter. Your last graf is apt as well: There are a lot of good people in every field who suffer the taint of their lesser colleagues. That’s why I try to stick with generalities in these points.

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