Friday, June 7, 2013

Competitive Purchasing of Technology

The intention of state purchasing guidelines is pretty simple – to ensure a competitive bidding process for significant technology purchases (normally over $5000.00). But complying with purchasing guidelines can be time consuming and difficult.
What’s a school to do?

The answer to this question varies with each financial manager. And sadly we have seen a few clever attempts to circumvent purchasing guidelines as we have bid competitively on posted items. But for purposes of this article, we will assume that your brother-in-law is not part of the equation, that you are not getting kickbacks from favorite vendors, and your IT provider has an arm’s length relationship with your financial manager. With few exceptions, we have observed great integrity with the charter schools and managers we have had the pleasure of serving.

However, the sheer volume of purchasing in a school can lead to unintended purchasing that is less than compliant. Here is a suggestion that we have found to be pretty simple and complies with the intent of purchasing guidelines.

Disclaimer: I do not pretend to know every states purchasing guidelines and this may technically not comply with the rules of your state. Check with your local state office of education.

First, let’s illustrate an important concept and consider a story of two guys selling watermelons.

Two men formed a partnership. They built a small shed beside a busy road. They obtained a truck and drove it to a farmer’s field, where they purchased a truckload of melons for a dollar a melon. They drove the loaded truck to their shed by the road, where they sold their melons for a dollar a melon. They drove back to the farmer’s field and bought another truckload of melons for a dollar a melon. Transporting them to the roadside, they again sold them for a dollar a melon. As they drove back toward the farmer’s field to get another load, one partner said to the other, “We’re not making much money on this business, are we?” “No, we’re not,” his partner replied. “Do you think we need a bigger truck?”

What does this have to do with technology? More than you might imagine.

Margins for most technology purchases are razor thin and the marketplace is very opaque, meaning you can in an instant determine the best price for nearly anything digital. Just do a quick search on Amazon or eBay. By taking this small step, the chances of overpaying significantly for technology is reduced greatly. Know what it is you are purchasing.

So why not purchase from an online venue such as eBay, Amazon, or others? Good question; and the answer is you just might! Especially for the occasional one or two items that are primarily consumer electronics/technology. However, using eBay or Amazon becomes more problematic when you need a specific type of technology, a specific quantity (often large), and with the manufacturers warranty included (or extended warranty if you choose).

Furthermore, it is a little difficult for most schools to actually specify the correct solutions, they need. That is presumably why you have technology managers in your organization. The biggest mistake we see with respect to purchasing is what to purchase rather than how to purchase, or from whom. And then there is the installation and management of that technology going forward.

But I digress…

One of the simplest ways we have found to provide our schools with a competitive bid is to take three simple steps:

  1. Identify clearly what technical solution is required (this is the most important step).
  2. Utilize a technology distributor that represents a large variety of vendors.
  3. Arrange for a cost plus, or percentage of invoice markup for your purchases.
Let’s look at an example of how this works:
Assume that a school administrator comes to us with a requisition for new desktops for all staff members. Specifications are agreed upon in advance and would include features such as form factor, operating system, memory, and storage requirements. Added to that feature list is a general idea on the budget available.
Our next step is to provide our distributors with those specifications and obtain competing quotes from their list of vendors. Now if you are dealing with a single vendor, your purchasing program will break at this point. So be sure you deal with a distributor’s representative, not a single vendor’s representative.
We work with two of the largest technology distributors in the US and, with few exceptions, receive a wide variety of products that match the required specifications. We then select based primarily upon price (all other considerations being equal). The school is then presented with our recommendations and the PO is obtained, the invoice is marked up the agreed upon amount, and the items are ordered.
This simple process provides our partner schools with a fair and competitive bid for items requested. The cost plus markup scheme can be easily audited to verify fair pricing and we provide the interface for warranty claims, service, etc.
One of our competitors claims to sell hardware at cost to their customer schools. Perhaps this is to offset the high fees charged for services, or perhaps they just need a bigger truck!

Friday, May 17, 2013

Technology Outsourcing: In House or Out House….

That didn’t exactly come out the way it was intended, let me start over. The subject of this week’s post is the physical location of your technical support staff, particularly those doing higher level support. Providing support in house is having your technical staff on premises at all times. Providing your support remotely (or out of house) is having your technical staff work from their office.

Which is better? Let’s take a deeper look.

There is a very wide array of remote access and connectivity capabilities now available to Information Workers. This creates an opportunity for your IT staff to provide remote support in some cases more effectively than being on premises. But there can be significant perception issues in those situations and it might be problematic if not managed properly.

Before you start down this road, here are three questions you must answer:
  1. Do you have a high level of confidence that your technical support staff acts with integrity?
  2. Are you able to provide meaningful measures of performance and results?
  3. Is your support communication infrastructure instantaneous and rock solid?
As you think about those questions, let me describe a scenario that occurred shortly after relocating our office from Texas to Utah a few years back.
We were providing technical support to an organization that was going through a major system upgrade. They needed someone onsite each day for a few weeks to bring all the new pieces together and train a large influx of new staff members. And they were looking to our organization for that support.
Only problem was, we were 1200 miles away!
So, we set up a remote control system on each desktop and started to provide the support needed and found we were significantly more effective than being there in person. Here’s how:
  1. It is quicker to move room to room by tabbing to a new window than by physically walking there.
  2. It is far less disruptive to be virtually in front of a computer than being physically present. And there is no competition for the same physical space.
  3. It is more effective for technical support to actually observe new staff attempting to do a process than to ask them to describe a process or problem.
  4. It is far easier to transfer support files, help documents, or simply chat when the support technician is at his workstation than at the workstation having problems.
However, there was just one small problem. Although our support of the staff was very effective, the administrator who was dealing with an entirely different set of problems was not happy about the arrangement. Her ongoing question was “Where is IT when we need them?”
Perception made short work of this very happy arrangement.

I’ve thought about this experience often, when discussing the manner in which we provide technical support at our partner schools and have been much more careful to ensure everyone understands the process. What appears to be very effective from the perspective of your technical support team may appear to be getting taken advantage of by an unconvinced administrator.

 Some organizations just feel the need to be able to walk down the hallway to the server room (closet in many cases) and talk face to face with technical support. Fair enough, but when we are trying to spread limited resources as far as humanly possible in a charter school environment, this may not provide the most bang for your buck.

What tools are required to do this? Good question. In short, Office 365 for education – specifically the Lync client now integrated into the latest release. Earlier versions work equally well. There are other solutions, but none as simple or as effective – especially if your staff uses Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.).

Using Lync (see previous articles for more details) our partner schools have a very effective support mechanism. It starts with presence, which indicates availability of technical support; then provides an escalation of communication methods to solve the problem at the required level. For example, a simple text message exchange can solve many minor issues. If more detail is required a phone call (via Lync) may be required. And if necessary, either party can share an application or entire desktop view to the other while communicating about the matter.
And if we need to involve more folks, or just talk face to face, we do an instant video conference or video call. And all of this can be accomplished without prior arrangement, meeting invitations, or software installation.

You’ll probably want to evolve into a remote (out of house) support mechanism over time, should you decide it is practical. It is very difficult to gauge the effectiveness of your support team when they are operating remotely, if you have no baseline of experience on premises. And you will definitely need to have a proven help desk solution in place to track and report on help desk issues.

And this discussion makes a couple of very important assumptions – trust being the one and capability the other. If you don’t have complete trust that your support staff will bill you according to services provided, or if you have doubts about their capability to effectively solve problems quickly then this long distance relationship may not work.

As distance learning has proven, proximity to support resources is not always necessary. And if the teacher or technician is competent and provides the right set of tools, the experience can be very effective and enjoyable. I personally think it is grand to go to work right after my workout when it is only 20 steps away – never mind the shorts and T-shirt!

If your technical support is inhouse or in the outhouse (so to speak) and you would like to explore ideas on improving it, give us a call.

Friday, May 10, 2013

What we have here is a failure… of Leadership

One of my favorite lines comes from Paul Newman, in the movie Cool Hand Luke. It is similar to this weeks blog title, and most of you over 40 have probably heard it. Newman repeats the phrase, “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” He repeats it often and until his eventual demise.

I substitute the word Leadership, because communication is the single most important aspect of the Holy Grail called leadership.

This is not an article criticizing anyone in leadership at any school. Leadership is a tough business, a worthy objective, and a never ending quest. It is very hard work for most of us average folks who don’t possess the skills of (pick your favorite leader).

And I hesitate writing about leadership, because I have my own failings. But I’ll do it anyway – mostly because I can, and also because I believe there are a few key ways that leadership can be enhanced in the area of Information Technology in a Charter School.

It’s pretty simple, really. Somebody has to be in charge and everybody needs to follow. How you get there is not so simple.

We recently had an exceptionally talented teacher approach us about a new online learning system that she was excited to share with others. Fair enough, we always welcome new ideas and ways of improving things. Problem is, she wanted us to essentially pressure the other staff members into seeing the world in her particular view. Of course we could have pushed her agenda and made it difficult to use other similar services had we been so inclined, but that would be a conflict of interest and contrary to sound and ethical leadership.

Do you have similar challenges in your organization? We frequently see these shooting stars of good ideas hurling across the proverbial campus sky, only to flash one last time and crash to the earthy reality of resistance to change and failure to get people on board. Change is hard and change requires leadership.

Again, this is not about criticism, but better ways of doing things.

May I suggest a very old fashioned approach to this very common problem? We have observed positive results at schools that have implemented these ideas.

It starts with a committee, okay if the label of a committee is a turn-off, try “focus group” or “change engineers” or whatever you like. But assemble a group of enthusiastic individuals - preferably volunteers who enjoy technology – to meet as a Technology Advisory Committee. Include one or more individuals from the following stakeholder groups – students, teachers, parents, administrators/BOD, and IT.

Establish a set time to meet and give it a high priority, perhaps even throw in some perks for participation.  Don’t waste time or meet without an agenda, be organized and serious. Then begin the process of listening to ideas, problems, suggestions, and challenges and collectively formulate a game plan that is agreed upon by the group. Don’t rush things. If more information is required, delay a decision rather than rushing forward for the sake of decisiveness.

When ideas are vetted in a fair and open manner, the best ideas will ultimately bubble to the top. A wise leader can encourage this process by maintaining order, giving all stakeholders a fair voice, and ensuring the dialogue does not become personal or vindictive.

You should observe three important principals in these interactions:
  1. Most good ideas come from the troops – teachers and students are where the rubber meets the road. They often have great ideas that bubble up because they are the primary consumers of IT.
  2. Wisdom and perspective comes from experience –administrators will guide the conversations to avoid the pitfalls of policy limits, government mandates,  and budget realities.
  3. Practical aspects of implementing are best addressed by your IT managers – building upon existing infrastructure is often a necessary compromise with new ideas.
Individual efforts, by any one group alone will never win the day. There has to be an agreed upon direction, with buy-in from all the stakeholders after vigorous debate, and a practical implementation plan put together that doesn’t completely undo the infrastructure already established.

Is your school missing the proverbial forest for all of the trees when it comes to Information Technology? Do you apply the same seriousness to deploying IT assets as you do financial assets?
Or is the culture at your school focused on position, power plays, and pet projects? 

By implementing regular Technology Advisory Committee meetings you are more likely to have a single, rational, and agreed upon process to determine what is best for the school.


It is possible to provide concise leadership in the area of technology. In our view it starts at the top by establishing a Technology Committee, with representatives from each stakeholder group. The committee meets regularly and deliberately to evaluate the desires and needs of the students through the advocacy of teachers, tempered with the wisdom and experience of the administrators, and guided by IT.
Bonus: A suggested methodology for your periodic TAC meetings:

  1. Start Positive: Begin on a positive note.  Report on a new implementation or project that highlights success in your efforts.
  2. Train Constantly: Have a 5 minute training session about something really useful that needs wider adoption. It may be the very issue you report on in the first item.
  3. Encourage Participation: Have each stakeholder representative review one or two high level technical challenges or ongoing problems. Avoid getting too deep into the details.
  4. Find Consensus: Informally poll your group to discover which challenges are your most pressing issues, then discuss it in more detail.
  5. Propose Solutions: Encourage each stakeholder to propose a course of action associated with your top issue(s) without interruption.
  6. Debate Proposals: Open the proposal up to vigorous, but moderated debate. Explore alternatives, question every aspect of the proposal, review cost/benefits, and consider implementation challenges.
  7. Assign Action: Develop an implementation plan or resolution plan for the issue. Complex issues may take multiple meetings to solidify, but act to the extent possible.
  8. Require Reports: Make assignments and reports on those assignments the subject of your next meeting – agenda item 1.
  9. Repeat as needed: You might need weekly TAC meetings at first. Eventually you should be able to meet just once each month.