Procurement Process Central to Non-Profit Private Innovation
The following interview is with Ramendra Singh, vice-chancellor of marketing and communications at Brandman University. Singh is an institutional leader with extensive experience in major service partnerships at his university, a private non-profit. In this interview, he provides some details on Brandman’s partnership process and discusses why the process is effective at allowing the institution to implement innovative services that support its growth.
1. Can you give us a few insights into Brandman’s process of entering into service partnerships with vendors?
At Brandman, almost every selection of service partnership has the consideration for the student at the heart of it. Our process for these service partnerships is dictated by assessing the needs of the students. Before we engage with any service provider, we start by assessing student needs. Student needs are different depending on the life cycle they are in. … The needs are different if you are a prospect than when you engage with us, when you enroll, your needs may be different, your needs may be more related to admission. When you are on the journey as a student, your needs may be different. As an alumni, they have different needs in terms of getting the right networking, finding the right employers, or they are looking for a degree or transition that help out with that. …
The heart of a non-profit institution: we’re looking at what will further the student outcomes. We capture these needs [and] our internal teams will do the various assessment; they start with a larger pool of potential, build those RFPs [requests for proposals] out based on the needs assessment, narrow it down to a smaller list and then, eventually, that RFP will be sent out to multiple participants who can then respond to the RFP.
We like to be as detailed in those as possible so that no matter what the provider is that they, one, understand our reasons for seeking this partnership and, second, more details allow them to present a detailed solution that showcases how they understand our problem and how they have a solution for it.
Once we get the responses back, we score them again; we have a process defined for it. We’ve got a weighted scoring mechanism. Our weights are not just arbitrarily decided. These weights reflect the decision-making criteria for the student. … The weights of these criteria are determined by what the student needs. …
We’ve got to define the needs [and] then we put a weight to it that allows us not to only develop an RFP but also to score better. Once we go through the scoring process, we do a little bit more diligence in terms of, we narrow down the vendors now, we want to see what other clients’ experiences have been. We do some reference checks and things like that. …
The last point I’ll make on the process [is] when the service provider has been selected through the process that I described earlier, we invest a lot of time and resources into supporting that partner. I think this is very, very important because I cannot tell you how many times I’ve come across situations where you do the right thing and you bring somebody on board and then it still takes time for it to take off because the service provider isn’t a part of your family.
We’re not looking for a transactional relationship. We’re looking for a relationship where the service provider can become our partner, become a part of our family. So, often times, we will expose a new service provider to our family of other providers so information flows. We will dedicate time and resources — our internal teams’ time and resources, as much as it takes — to get the vendors up to speed, to get them to start thinking like Brandman because, until and unless you become part of the family and you think like Brandman and think about student outcomes, think about advancement, … the service probably will not grow in its full potential until we’re thinking like a family.
2. What are some of the most common misconceptions about the procurement processes of private non-profit universities?
Let me address that question in terms of what are some of the things that I see are getting better.
I don’t know if there’s a misconception, but I clearly see [there] is a gap in the understanding. … One of the things I’m seeing getting better is students understanding that a private not-for-profit university is designed in such a way that every process that leads to an efficiency — that efficiency gets plowed right back into the education as a value-added service to the student. This was one of the things that took a little while for people to understand; really, the core difference in a not-for-profit university is that we design our processes in such a way that any benefit [makes us more efficient].
I was explaining to you how we do this diligence in terms of understanding the student needs and getting the right service provider. Well, guess what? When we get the right service provider, our processes have become even more efficient. When we become even more efficient, any benefit at all that we get from these efficiencies, we plow it right back into the university, into the outcome for the student.
3. What are the significant advantages of your approach?
I think we’re a happy medium in between [the for-profit and public approaches]. The significant advantages of the approach is, … the quality of education. It’s fostering success.
Why the student comes to a non-profit university, what their goals are, how that non-profit institution helps them achieve those goals — those are all the things that tie directly back to the quality of education to foster a successful university.
Every service relationship we’re going out and seeking is geared around those two big advantages for the student.
These kind of things help minimize the risk to the mission and vision of the university. Those are not just words. We really live by enhancing student outcomes.
One of the [other] things … is fostering innovation. When you’re set up in the way I was describing earlier, it allows you to engage with providers outside of your direct vertical who may have done a lot of innovative work. Now, if all you’re looking at is your own process of the traditional way in which you’ve done business, you’ve continued to do that business, then it’s possible that you’re overlooking that key aspect of introducing innovation.
If there was a service provider out there who’s done something in a way that fosters quality of education, fosters success, we want to talk to them. We know what our students need and if there’s innovative work being done, we want to talk to them so we can tie the two together and that is one of the ways in which we help improve the education sector.
4. What improvements do you think need to be made to the purchasing process?
I think one of the process improvements in general — and this could be tied to any level of the maturity of the education sector that I was talking about in terms of front-end processes — is that we do tend to work with a defined set of providers. Part of it is because the education sector as a whole has some great things — obviously. you change lives, you touch people, we help them attain better outcomes, both personal and professional — but just like any other sector, we have our areas of improvement.
The front-end processes that I talked about, they are some of the things the education sector needs to get better at. How do you tailor — we’re talking about non-traditional audience — how do you tailor education to the needs of the student? There is no one-size-fits-all.
How do you make sure you’re looking at strategies; the different models, specific to student needs, things like [integrated marketing communications], targeting, lifecycle experience of the whole student?
These are things the education sector, in general, hasn’t necessarily been doing as great as some of the other sectors. Why that is important to the question you asked me is, as we get more and more of these improvements that other sectors have made, it will open the door for a lot more service providers to start engaging with educational institutions, regardless of whether they are non-profit or for-profit. Today, we work with a limited set.
As we get more and more mature about the front-end process — of matching the needs of the audience with the product — the process will expand and allow different educational institutions … [to work] with a larger set of providers because we’re starting to think … outside of the box. That’s the one big improvement I see happening in the purchasing process.
The array of people who we reach on the other side for innovative products and services is going to expand as we get better at customizing our front-end processes in a more targeted way.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the procurement process at non-profit institutions and the value of that process for student outcomes?
I think one of the big things for us is the ability to reach out to those providers, those verticals, that we haven’t necessarily brought mainstream in education. I’m talking about targeting, I’m talking about … front-end process, unique services that help students make better decisions in terms of the choice of the education, about the degree they want, the outcome they want.
I just want to reiterate that while I think we, at Brandman, are taking somewhat of a leading charge in that innovation, I encourage my colleagues across the education sector to start thinking in those terms because, when we start to take that route, we will be working with a lot more innovative providers that typically we haven’t worked with. And there’s a lot of value to working with these providers because it just makes the quality of the outcomes for the student better.
All I’m interested in is making sure we continue to make the quality of education better with these relationships. I’m thrilled with the current relations that we have and I’m always looking to hear from more service providers on some innovative things we [need to be] doing.