3 Reasons Why Being a University Partner Manager Is the Hardest Job in Ed Tech | Inside Higher Ed

The hardest job in all educational technology is that of the university partner manager. These are the ed-tech company professionals who maintain the primary, day-to-day, on-the-ground relationship with schools.

Partner managers are usually different from the people in companies who negotiate contracts (engagements) with a university. Their job is to be the interface between the services that the company offers and the operations of the partner university.

What makes this role of university partner manager so challenging and vitally important to the companies they work for and the schools they work with? I’ll give you three reasons.

1: Partner Managers Must Bridge Corporate and University Cultures

There are numerous candidates for the most important trends driving changes across the higher ed ecosystem. You could point to demographic challenges, public funding shortfalls, the rise of online education and the growth of nondegree programs. For my money, the most important trend to get our heads around is the growth of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships. Think online program enablers, digital marketing providers and research and consulting firms.

It is no longer correct to think of companies working with schools on degree and nondegree educational programs as vendors. They are truly partners. And for partnerships to be productive, the work must be set up as relational rather than transactional.

What this means in practice for university partner managers is that the lines can get blurry. The best partner managers internalize the values, goals and even language of the schools with which they work. Identifying with the schools where they lead relationships can make things difficult for partner managers back at their companies.

Partner managers need to figure out how to effectively advocate internally at their companies for their schools while also keeping in mind the objectives and constraints of the company where they are employed. This is a tricky balancing act.

2: Their Job Requires Them to Be in the Middle

University partner managers live their professional lives in the middle of the company they work for and the schools they work with. It takes an enormously skilled partner manager with exceptionally high levels of social intelligence to be equally respected by both sides.

The big thing that people at colleges and universities get wrong about people who work at companies is not understanding the degree to which we all share a similar set of values, motivations and beliefs.

Most anyone who ends up at an educational technology company in a partner manager role is passionate about education and learning. They often have previously worked at a university before moving to a company. They work in ed tech because they believe they can have the most significant positive impact by working with many schools.

Those of us at universities should recognize the challenges of anyone occupying a liminal professional role, caught between the operations and culture of their company and that of universities.

3: University Partner Managers Have Limited Decision-Making Authority in Their Companies

At universities, decision-making is (by design) distributed. At a for-profit firm, relatively few company leaders hold financial decision-making authority. University partner managers are rarely able to negotiate financial terms for their company’s services. They work within the constraints of the finances and policies of their company. Partner managers can advocate for their partner schools, but they must almost always go to company leaders for financial or contractual issues.

This lack of partner manager authority with companies can frustrate their university counterparts. We build relationships with partner managers and want them to be able to commit resources and make decisions based on our work together. In reality, ed-tech company leaders spend much of their time developing new business instead of managing existing contracts. Our frustrations with ed-tech companies may be legitimate. Still, those of us at universities should remember that our partner managers cannot unilaterally claim more authority.

Some other reasons why working as a university partner manager for an ed-tech company is challenging include:

  • Universities seldom have clear decision-making structures.
  • Higher education timelines and time horizons are very different from companies’.
  • The economic environment for tech right now is brutal.
  • The length of ed-tech careers does not match that of university partners.
  • University operations are opaque to outsiders.

The people we work with at ed-tech companies could just as easily be working at our universities. And if any of us were going to work at an ed-tech company, we would likely find ourselves in the role of university partner managers. (Companies like to put people with experience working for universities in these roles.)

Understanding the challenges faced by our ed-tech colleagues in university partner management roles should allow our work with these folks to be more effective and will ultimately help create situations where nonprofit/for-profit partnerships create shared value.

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