This is part six of a series, covering the Education sessions at the Microsoft Australia Partner Conference.

Start at part one (The Microsoft Australia Education Team) here

Common objections you’ll meet with education ICT decision makers

There’s a common fallacy that CIO’s and their teams in education don’t have much money. I’ve come across it many times myself - for example, talking with a big ICT company a couple of weeks ago about why they didn’t bring an innovative customer management solution to the education market, they told me ‘…but education customers don’t have much money’. The reality is that education is one of the biggest spenders on ICT in the country. But they have high expectations for the ICT investments that they make - and do drive a hard bargain.

So, if you’re sitting in a discussion with an education ICT decision maker, what might you hear - and what could your customer really mean?

“I don’t have any money”

imageYes, you will hear it from your customers. Regularly. And your customers will hear it up the chain from their managers too. It’s not a hopeless cause though. It’s often time to review whether what your discussing is actually hitting the strategic goals of the institution. And whether there is funding devoted to that strategic initiative that could be invested more wisely in your project. (I’ve already written about how to understand your customers’ strategic plans here).
One real-life example from last year was a supplier who offered a power management utility to run on a universities computers. They had worked with the IT Team to quantify exactly how much money could be saved, and the university had even gone as far as piloting it in a whole building. It proved that the product paid for itself with reduced electricity costs within seven days (yes, no typo - 7). But the IT Team didn’t have the money to buy the product, and the electricity budget they were cutting belonged to somebody else. In this case, the IT Team had to convince the other budget holder to contribute to the cost of implementation. The challenge for the supplier was two-fold - it involved identifying who held the budget that would be used to implement the project - and it took over six months to get going (whilst six months worth of electricity was going down the drain!)

“I have to cut my ICT budget”

imageYou are likely to hear more of that in the future than you have in the past from some customers (eg See this story in the Australian this week), and it’s definitely the case that budgets are getting tighter for many customers, as the marketplace changes (eg from 2012, the result of the Bradley Review will see some universities shrinking, whilst others grow).
So what have we seen so far?

  • The future of very big $100M+ IT projects in education is looking bleaker, as a more nimble project mindset appears in the state education departments.
  • Procurement cycles get longer, as projects shift shape mid-procurement
  • Increasing demand for projects which use Operating Expenditure (OPEX) rather than Capital (CAPEX).

Especially where budgets are tighter, there are still good discussions to have. My three recommendations are:

  1. Make sure that you focus on the value of your solution - what is it going to deliver in education benefit terms. Even if (especially if!) the IT team aren’t interested in that angle. Because a little further down the procurement somebody from outside of IT is going to ask the question about why the investment is being made. If the IT team don’t have the answers to hand, that risks the whole project closing.
  2. Most of Microsoft’s education customers in Australia have a broad subscription agreement that gives them access to a massive range of our software. Helping them to deploy some of that is a key opportunity for you and them - they get more value from their licensing, and you will often be able to find projects which reduce the cost of running their institution. (eg Windows 7 reduces PC power usage by $70+ a year - a Windows 7 deployment project will likely have an ROI of a few months)
  3. Talk to customers about whether they could save money from switching some of their ICT to a equivalent but lower cost Microsoft product. Obvious choices would be using Windows Server’s Hyper-V virtualisation instead of paying for VMWare licences, or switching a database from Oracle to Windows SQL Server. And there are plenty of other options - switching from a third-party anti-virus to use ForeFront; using the MSDNAA/Dreamspark programme for developer tools are just two.

“That isn’t the way we do it”

imageEvery week I talk with a partner who’s created a new way of handling an old business process. Online testing instead of paper-based. SMS communication to parents instead of phone calls. Phone apps for university students to access the latest faculty information. Running a service in the Cloud instead of putting a server in the datacentre.
Often, the challenge they’ll have heard many times from their customers is “that isn’t the way we do it”, and that then slows down the whole conversation. The reality is that some of the new ways of doing things create a massive challenge for the CIO and their teams. A new system can challenge the role of their team (and even threaten their jobs) and it can also be perceived to challenge the authority of the team (if they currently have responsibility to run servers, and decide what can and can’t happen on it, imagine the threat of moving to Cloud systems, where they may perceive that this role is removed). Or they could feel that they are being pushed into areas where they aren’t the business owner, and may not have much influence or knowledge.

So how do you deal with this? Well, my best advice is to be armed with excellent case studies. Know which customers have already done what you’re proposing. Of course, the closer the customer reference matches to the person you’re in front of, the better. But a university hearing that another public sector body has done something similar will still be reassured. Even if you don’t have your own case study example (hey, we all have to start with our ‘first’ customer), then build up examples from other sources. If you’re just about to propose to a university in Australia that it does the first Australian implementation of a technology, then can you demonstrate that it’s been used successfully somewhere else in the world? (This is where the Education case studies database on Microsoft.com can come in incredibly useful - this link shows you the last 90 days of worldwide education case studies)

“I’m the Decision Maker”

imageNot an objection, so much as something to look out for. You’ll definitely hear this - and sometimes it’s true. But the reality of decision making in educational ICT is that it can be a confusing, and lengthy process - and gets longer and more confusing the bigger the investment. There are many decisions, on straight ICT infrastructure, that an ICT manager will make independently. But where you’re providing a business solution, rather than just a straight IT product, you’ll find the decision making unit will expand, and start to involve the administration or teaching leadership staff.
If the procurement is going to have to go to tender (because of the size of it), then it’s the procurement process that’s actually going to be the decision maker. So you’ll need to be really clear on how the various bids are scored. (The Northern Territories Government are a model of openness about this - if you look at one of their tenders, you’ll see that they provide the scoring framework with tender documents, so that you know in advance what is important to them.)

And decision making is also changing today - see Part Five “The Decision Making Unit for Australian Education ICT”. Whereas a lot of ICT decision making has rested with the CIO and their team, there are increasing examples where the decision is led by somebody within another area - especially as the shift to Cloud services has enabled them to buy a business service to deliver an outcome, rather than having to buy and implement an ICT system.

Learn MorePart Seven - The view from within a school - what the Principal thinks [to come Monday 5th]