Published on 2014/01/28

The Critical Questions: Determining Whether Partnering is Best

The Critical Questions: Determining Whether Partnering is Best
Without considering critical questions related to mission, purpose and core competencies, institutional leaders will never be fully confident in the appropriateness of a partnership.
It’s rare to meet a higher education professional who complains of having too many staff or resources. If there is one positive result of the recent recession, it is that constraints can often force us to be more creative in using the resources we have wisely and exploring alternate solutions to fill any gaps.

In the age of Amazon and Google, consumers expect the convenience of a one-stop experience to fulfill their needs. However, the average academic department or institution isn’t equipped with billions of dollars in technology, staffing and unlimited services to fulfill every possible request.

That’s where external partnerships can be a beneficial step in enabling growth, diversity of offerings and increased capacity while allowing the academic partner to focus on its core competencies. But before diving headfirst into a partnership, consider the following:


  • Expand your existing catalogue with additional topics and delivery modalities
  • Fulfill consumer demand gaps
  • Achieve cost savings
  • Create process and logistics efficiencies
  • Allow access to technologies your institution doesn’t have in-house
  • Tap into a vendor’s experience and industry knowledge
  • Free up your in-house team to focus on their core competencies


  • Quality control
  • Ownership
  • Purchasing regulations
  • Trust
  • Perception / reputation
  • Staying true to your mission

Entering into a partnership can seem like a quick and easy decision on the surface, but choosing the wrong partner can result in long-term damage to your institution and the audiences you serve. The decision-making process to determine if a partnership is worthwhile requires substantial research, an investment of time to consider the ramifications and a commitment to take a cold, hard look in the mirror. Key questions to help guide the decision process:

  1. Mission: What is your unit’s core mission? Will the partnership contribute to accomplishing this mission or other strategic goals related to fulfilling the mission?

  2. Staffing: Do you have the in-house expertise and resources to accomplish the same task? If so, will it stretch your staff too thin or does it fit within their existing workload capacity?

  3. Value-Add: Does the partnership provide a value-add? Can the partner deliver something your unit cannot?

  4. Quality: What level of quality do you expect? Does the partner have a proven track record of success with measurable results, deliverables and client / student satisfaction?

  5. Goals: What is your end goal? Will the partnership contribute to achieving this goal?

  6. Purchasing: Have you considered more than one vendor? Your institution likely has a standard purchasing process to follow to examine multiple vendors with similar capabilities so you can receive the best pricing and service.

  7. Review: Be sure to have your legal or review team examine partnership agreements to protect your institution with an exit strategy in case things go wrong. Another set of eyes can also highlight any deficiencies to be corrected before an agreement is signed.

  8. Financial: Will the partnership result in additional income, reduced expenses or intangible benefits? Some partnerships improve revenue, while others may provide valuable benefits that are not quantified financially.

  9. Ownership: Is intellectual property involved? Ensure that any questions regarding ownership of materials, content or data are addressed in the agreement with the partner upfront.

  10. Reputation: If this is a publicly visible partnership, how will your audiences and the community perceive this partnership and how will it impact your institution’s reputation? Will current and prospective students or clients feel confident in selecting services provided in conjunction with a partner?

  11. Measuring Success: Can you measure the results of the partnership? Before entering into a partnership, define key performance indicators and determine how results will be measured so you know if the partnership is meeting expectations.

After due diligence and planning, partnerships can still turn out differently than expected. Be sure both partners are motivated to deliver the best results and keep the lines of communication open. If results do not meet your expectations, and all efforts to improve the situation fail, be prepared to walk away.

Successful partnerships can be a very beneficial component to achieving optimum results while enhancing or expanding your institution’s capabilities. But without thoughtful planning, research and strategy, partnerships can be a recipe for disaster.

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Readers Comments

Tawna Regehr 2014/01/28 at 10:11 am

These are helpful questions to get the conversation started around partnerships. In particular, Snyder makes a good point about checking the track record of the vendor to ensure quality. I know of cases where institutions relied solely on the references the vendor provided, which is a risky move. Institutions should always do their own research because only they know what they’re looking for in a vendor partner. They should also keep in mind that vendors who receive great references for their work in other industries may not necessarily be equally adept in the higher education field. Care should be taken to seek out references who are similar to your institution, as they can give a more accurate/relatable perspective on how the vendor may perform.

    Lesley Snyder 2014/01/31 at 9:08 pm

    Tawna, thanks for your comments. Absolutely right. Vendors will always provide references who have a positive review to share. But digging deeper and doing your own research can often uncover the unhappy clients your potential vendor didn’t want you to know about. Or it can sometimes reinforce the positives about a vendor and give you more confidence that the decision to partner was the right decision.

Francis Beyer 2014/01/28 at 5:09 pm

One issue I find with many standard purchasing processes is that they often require you to choose the best quote, even if the vendor isn’t necessarily the best partner. In some cases, this doesn’t matter, as the vendor is only needed to deliver a product or service. But if your institution is looking for a partner to include in conversations about your long-term vision and core mission, you need to consider more than the price the vendor is offering.

    Lesley Snyder 2014/01/31 at 9:14 pm

    Francis, thank you for your comments. I agree that particularly in the services category, the purchasing process isn’t as black and white as purchasing something more commodified like office supplies. I call this “widget syndrome”. Services can often be more subjective based on how the service provider interacts with your team, if they understand your mission and goals, and if they can deliver a product that works for you and the students you serve. Sometimes, the low cost vendor isn’t the best fit for the job. A good purchasing agent understands this variance and can be an ally in securing not only the best pricing but also the best fit for the project.

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