Mind the gap!

This has been on my mind for a while. It bothered me at the time, but I said nothing. And it is also inspired in part by Marcus Elliott’s post about non-overlapping magisteria 

Earlier in 2018 I was asked to speak to a group of senior professional services staff from across the higher education sector. A lot of them were in finance roles. The brief was “can you present about the emergent technologies that you see coming over the next 2 – 3 years, so we are more aware for when we start getting budget requests”. This seems reasonable to me, a good response and planning forethought by a group of people who work in education and who, reasonably, want to know what budgets are being spent on and why.  

They also asked a director of a technology company to present.

I did my EdTech and Next Generation Digital presentation – talking a lot about staff skills and capabilities and investing in people. The director of technology company, who had no understanding of education started off with a slide very similar to that below.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”

Not actually something Darwin said…

He looked around the room, nodding at the assembled higher education management, his body language taking on an air of “we are sharing wisdom”. And I saw a lot of them nodding back, as if to say, “yeah you’re right”. And then, having established his borrowed credibility from Charles Darwin, he spent the next 30 minutes framing blockchain as the future.

Actually, this guy was nice, and he wasn’t selling anything to this crowd either. He was presenting as a favour, and to be honest I learnt stuff about blockchain.

But he had employed a sales technique, and I state here I am no sales expert, but I recognise behaviours when I see them. (ask my wife, I love having sales people, or people selling religion come to the door – you can learn a lot by engaging them in conversation).

In this case the presenter was in part trying to meet these people from academia on their ground, by citing one of the most famous thinkers of all time. And it worked, they all enjoyed his presentation, how he kept a theme all the way through based on Darwin.  

Here’s the thing Darwin never said that. It probably originated from a speech or book where Leon C. Megginson from Louisiana State University was paraphrasing Darwin in support of some arguments he was building about petroleum business management. You can tell I liked this guy as I did not point it out during his session.

It got me thinking about how EdTech vendors sell to academia. I have spoken to lots of academics at conferences, who relay their vendor conversations, things like “they said I could have a free pilot if they can get 15 minutes with my CIO/Finance Director/Someone with a budget”.

This isn’t because they want to give stuff away! Once the vendor is in that meeting, the academic won’t be.

Recently I was really fortunate to be in a room with vendor who was casually frank about how they are trained close the deal. He talked about, how you need to set up the meeting with the right people, and you don’t want any academics that might end up as users in that room asking difficult questions – “because they are always looking to critique any of the education speak you use in the presentation”.

He likes talking to people who are not in academic positions, where he can spin open questions about the customer’s “situation” using plausible language.

“Always use the plural pedagogies, because you can claim that your pedagogy has moved on from theirs”  

“Let the buyers talk about themselves, especially if you can get them to talk about problems they have had with academics – because once you have ‘Problematised’ their situation you’re close to a deal, and you can talk about opportunities that your products can solve. “And then (and at this point held his hands apart and clapped them together as he said) you close the f**king deal. Also “never leave without getting some sort of commitment – even if it is to another meeting – because sometimes you have to wear them down.”

Clearly not every vendor is like this, but it did give me an insight about how things get sold to institutions

From an EdTech Vendor perspective, someone who is selling a “solution”, the ideal situation might look like this.

Where the greater the distance between the academic community and the professional services community of an institution the easier it is for EdTech vendors to find a gap in.

In reality we sometimes need to add in senior management, and that means we could see a variety of scenarios including those below.

In all of these scenarios the vendors have a gap to work in and sell.

An aspiration would be the scenario above, representing close working relationships between the elements. The reality for most institutions is that there will always be gaps. These gaps are where the institutions are prone to be porous and shiny new education technology, or ideas seep in. The lack of understanding, or communication between these elements are where vendors are able to sell easiest. Divide and conquer.

For me working in the education sector is a privilege, and I know that the motivations of many of the people I work with on a daily basis are driven by wanting to achieve good things for students, or in research. We need to remind ourselves that the people that want to provide services and ‘solutions’ into our institutions are driven by the need to sell their wares. The next time you’re in an airport take a look at the sales books – “Who dares sells”, “The solution sellers handbook” and “The secrets of closing the sale”, the titles are aimed at businesses that are selling, and education institutions are rich customers.

So why was I in the room with a vendor? It was just for coffee, and he was suggesting to me that the best sales people in EdTech are the ones who have worked in education.

I am mindful of a Neil Gaiman Quote from Neverwhere –

“When angels go bad they are worse than anyone else. Remember Lucifer used to be an angel.”

43 thoughts on “Mind the gap!

  1. I absolutely recognise this selling behaviour – I once watched withe fascination as a well-known VLE vendor managed to sell their “enterprise” VLE into my institution despite it having been rejected by the academics and by the techies (including me). Their technicque was as you describe – keep getting meetings until you manage to get one where the academics and techies are excluded. They did this so successfully that a very Senior Bloke at the university comfided in me that the deal had been successful because “we managed to keep the academics out of it”….

  2. Good post, Laurie. Hug your institutions close and tighten those gaps! And yes – whatever the ‘problems’ – working in (public) education *is* a privilege.

  3. Great post Lawrie . Recently I challenged something you wrote from my position of “haven’t we moved on from this or such like , are institutions really that “stupid” (if I”m allowed to say this in the current environment). I was wrong to do so . The next day I was placed in a meeting by my institution. It went something like this … Look at this great technology look what it does and we’ve signed up for it , my question what’s our problem this solves? , whats the question? Blank looks all round the table How wrong I was …

    • I think the reality is that you were right then and you are right now. I think that we all see situations like this on a regular basis, my hope is that they will occur less overtime as we become better informed. But the reality is that culture will throw these situations up at us, and culture is always changing. You asking those questions will have had an impact – even if it wasn’t apparent at the time. We just have to be watchful, and work at what we believe is the right approach.

  4. “the distance between the academic community [front end] and the professional services community [support staff] of an institution the easier it is for EdTech [any tech] vendors to find a gap in”

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