Published on 2014/09/12

Entering a Tech Procurement Process? Here Are 5 Things You Need to Know About RFPs

Entering a Tech Procurement Process? Here Are 5 Things You Need to Know About RFPs
As more and more services are being outsourced, institutional leaders should re-evaluate the way the RFP process for major procurements is handled.

There’s a three-letter acronym that almost everyone working at a higher ed institution dreads, but still relies on. And upon hearing the acronym, anyone involved prepares to kiss a good part of the next several weeks (or even months) goodbye.

It’s the dreaded RFP or request for proposal. Used mainly at public institutions — but also by many private institutions as well — the RFP is intended to make purchasing transactions transparent, methodical, comparable, sanitized, fair and free from coercion, relationships, kickbacks and the like.

Intended to protect the institution, its students and (in the case of public institutions) the taxpayer, the RFP concept is a good one — but the process is flawed. Usually, an RFP is comprised of numerous specific feature requirements that vendors are expected to respond to with yes or no answers and sometimes a short explanation. When the responses are evaluated, the scores are tallied and often divided by price, creating a feature-per-dollar score.

This approach works effectively for simple and easily-defined purchases, but when the purchase is not so cut and dry, the process is more complex.

So, is your institution thinking about issuing an RFP for a complex ed-tech product or service? Here are five tips:

1. Consider the Company

A checklist is all that’s needed to arrive at a good deal for a commodity. But when purchasing something multifaceted like software, consider it a strategic investment.

In cases like this, the service provider is as important — if not more important — than the product itself. Unless it is going to have a very short life cycle, the product will have to change and evolve along with the institution’s needs and the needs of the education industry as a whole.

Institutional leaders should be confident that the selected provider has the know-how and industry expertise to navigate such changes.

2. Opt For Use Cases Over Features

Many RFPs are little more than long lists of features. But there are hundreds of ways to do the same thing, some better, some worse, and it’s rare for any two products to approach a problem in the same way, with the exact same features.

By using use cases instead of feature lists, the institution requesting proposals can set out what it’s trying to accomplish and then let the RFP responder explain how its product or service would work. Not only does this approach let the procurement team compare outcomes more evenly. It also enables the institution to improve its processes.

An institution issues an RFP because it feels an external vendor can offer a better or more efficient product or service than they can create in-house. So consider the vendor’s expertise and let them explain how the task at hand should be tackled.

3. Seek Value

When making a strategic investment, value is not always directly proportional to cost. It’s definitely not proportional to the number of features! To maximize the value of the institution’s investment, procurement officers and institutional leaders need to set priorities.

Some requirements may be far more important than others, and when issuing the RFP, institutions must have a clear understanding of what matters the most. I’ve often seen vendors win RFPs by jamming their product full of small, cheap and unimportant features, steering clear of high-value, high-priority components that cost more to create and implement, thereby gaining points for quantity over quality

4. Invite Experts

Sometimes, in the interest of impartiality, procurement teams will invite people with little or nothing to do with the department in question to evaluate an RFP. While this makes sense in theory, it can result in a poor outcome because the reviewers might have little knowledge or understanding of how the product should work or the needs that it should address. To counter this, only include people who will work with the product or service, or have the expertise to evaluate the RFP proposal.

5. Dig Deep

Colleges and universities should include a step in the RFP process when institutional representatives can look under the hood and actually examine the product in consideration. Will the product be engineered by the vendor in-house or outsourced? Do all the components work together seamlessly or are they bolted on in a piecemeal fashion?

To be sure to get a full view of how the product works, include demonstrations, webinars and meetings as part of the RFP process. This is the best way to go beyond the theory behind the product and instead gain context and understand how your outcomes will be achieved. Be sure to do a thorough inspection before making a buying decision.


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Readers Comments

Eric Csergo 2014/09/12 at 7:23 am

The first point here really resonated with me. If we don’t pay attention to the company during a procurement process, we can get really screwed in the long run. This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with the RFP process. By putting our blindfold on in making a purchasing decision, we (obviously) blind ourselves.

Mike H 2014/09/12 at 11:49 am

wait… are you telling me major tech investments are being made with useless people having a say??? no wonder the taxpayer is getting burned time and time again by public universities. wow.

Tech Boss 2014/09/12 at 3:31 pm

As a senior member of the tech team at a major public school (not saying which), it REALLY worries me when a company tells me I can’t dig around in the product before I buy it. Intellectual property be damned. If you’re not going to let me dig deep into the product, I don’t trust it. Period.

D. Terry Rawls 2014/09/15 at 4:29 pm

I suspect this is an area of higher education where traditional institutions could, and should, learn from the for-profit sector. Writing a good RFP that allows the school to look beyond just the lowest price and consider the vendors on multiple levels is an art. Thank you Shaul for this informative article.

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