Published on 2014/01/27

Exploring the Benefits of a True Partnership

Exploring the Benefits of a True Partnership
A partnership where both sides are clear in their aims, responsibilities and roles can have a positive impact both on an institution’s reputation and its bottom line.

The following interview is with Carol Fleming, senior director for outreach and engagement at James Madison University (JMU). Fleming recently presented at UPCEA South on the ideal approach institutions should take to working with vendors. In this interview, she expands on that topic and shares her thoughts on some of the characteristics of an ideal partnership between a postsecondary institution and a service provider, also discussing the benefits an institution can gain from a positive relationship.

1. What are the differences between a client-vendor relationship and a partnership?

Being in the field of continuing education, I find this to be an interesting question. For James Madison University’s Outreach & Engagement, there are more similarities than there are differences between a client-vendor relationship and a partnership. The vendors we choose to work with are typically companies whose main focus is continuing education. They come to the table knowing the general idea of what units like ours are looking for. From the very beginning, both sides are looking to provide services to students. Both sides are trying to provide access to education. We have identified our goals and work together to reach them. So, while these relationships may start as a client-vendor relationship, when successful, they transform into partnerships.

The only difference I see is what happens prior to the relationship. Before our unit is able to work with a vendor, we are required to go through a Request for Proposal process (RFP) through the University’s procurement office. While this process can be long and at times frustrating, in the end, it is always worth it. The RFP gives both sides the opportunity to discuss and finalize roles and responsibilities, timelines, financial models, etc. When completed, you have a signed contract that both sides are happy with.

As you can see, for James Madison University’s Outreach & Engagement, there are more similarities than differences between client-vendor relationships and partnerships.

2. What are some characteristics of a strong partnership between higher education institutions and service-providing vendors?

Some characteristics of a strong partnership would be both sides having a clear vision, agreed upon goals and outcomes and constant communication. Again, the RFP process would help with this.

3. Conversely, what are some elements that characterize a poor partnership between higher education institutions and vendors?

I would say the biggest problem between partners would be lack of communication. In some cases, it could be the vendor not understanding the field of continuing education. That is the reason Outreach & Engagement chooses to work with companies whose mission is similar to ours.

4. What would the outcome be of a poor partnership? How might it negatively impact the final outcome of the project or the service being provided?

The majority of our contracts are with vendors who provide the content for our non-credit professional development courses/certificates. Our students are typically working adults who are looking to advance their careers or looking to switch careers. They count on our non-credit professional development programs to help them do so. If the quality of these courses/certificates is poor or if the instructors are not of high standard, or if the vendor fails to communicate either with us or with students, then our students suffer. If the vendor we’re working with to deliver these programs is not providing high-quality programs, it is JMU’s reputation that is damaged. So, ultimately, an outcome of a poor partnership would be the termination of the contract.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the characteristics in an ideal partnership between a postsecondary institution and service provider, and how a positive relationship can impact the outcome or the service being provided?

In regards to how a positive relationship can impact the outcome or the service, there are a few things. Our partnerships have allowed our unit to offer programs that meet the needs of our population. They have assisted us in expanding our reach and our brand and they have helped create happy students who have been able to further their careers. Even when the start-up was slow, we pushed through together and made it work. In the end, our numbers and revenue hit a mark we didn’t think was possible.

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Readers Comments

Daniele Thomas 2014/01/27 at 12:37 pm

A lot of the articles I’ve read on The EvoLLLution regarding partnerships have taken a rather negative view of the RFP process, but I’m glad to hear Fleming stand up for it. True, RFPs can be time consuming and seem very legalistic/bureaucratic, but they are designed to safeguard institutions and ensure they secure partners who can deliver on their objectives.

Rhonda White 2014/01/27 at 4:22 pm

I found this interview very interesting because James Madison University has taken the step to engage a partner for academic programming, an area not many institutions venture into when considering partnerships. It’s helpful to see how the experience worked out for one institution because it demystifies the process for others.

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