Spotlight

Becoming a Partner With Tech Companies

by Scott Kuffel

There is a saying that goes, “Luck is the intersection where preparation meets opportunity.” Superintendents typically do not enjoy leading through “luck,” particularly when faced with making key budgetary, personnel and program decisions.

Illinois recently enacted legislation that led to the required posting in many school districts of school board agendas and meeting minutes. It was this opportunity that led to the discovery of the importance of superintendents developing appropriate partnerships with technology companies for the mutual benefit of both parties.

While attending a state school board association-sponsored workshop, I had the opportunity to visit with our field representative who shared a new web-based product that I believed could assist our district in complying with this new mandate. Our district took advantage of a 90-day trial and soon found the product had several positive attributes that allowed us to post our agendas and minutes. It wasn’t until I connected with the chief architect of the web tool that our district could fully understand the power of this partnership.

Progession of Uses
The whole idea of two-way communication between vendor and consumer grows in magnitude as both sides better understand the “wants” and the “needs.” The architect of SchoolBoardNet needed a live user and one who was willing to pilot new formatting and templates, as well as an educator who was willing to provide honest and constructive feedback.

As superintendent, I needed a “techie” who was willing to listen to issues of user-friendly screens, reducing keystrokes to end users (who may not be as tech-savvy as a “virtual architect”), and someone who could understand we had users who ran all along the continuum from board members to administrators, parents to partners in higher education, teachers to the media.

One immediate issue that advanced from near crisis to solution quickly was caused by our district existing in primarily a Macintosh world. Within just a few hours, the designers enabled us to move right to Firefox as our primary Mac browser and all was well.

For our part, we opened up avenues to help advance the electronic tool to become much more than just a communication vehicle from superintendent to board of education. Instead of saying, “No, we only take care of school board meetings,” the architect listened and helped us create communication formats for teacher meetings, parent meetings, committee meetings and teacher association welfare meetings.

It is this ongoing exchange of ideas that enables both sides — vendor and consumer — to make cost-effective improvements to product and then production. All this builds essential trust in our working relationship.

Trust is established in these partnerships when both parties are honest in sharing what is needed and honest in answering whether what is needed can be delivered. The relationship we enjoy now has two-way communication with the virtual architect, where one week we can call and say, “We need an easier way to set up a Weekly Update letter” and in 24 hours an e-mail notifies us to take a look at their new Weekly Update template. I can’t tell you how many e-mails or calls I receive from our partner that start with, “Hey, I want you to take a look at XYZ to see whether this is something that will help you.”

Comparison Shopping
A natural question becomes “Can a district become too dependent upon one company or too focused on one piece of software or one tool?”

School district administrators must be able to determine whether they have an open dialogue with the vendor where it is understood how important accountability is to a superintendent and school board. A good partner operates to make money and provide a service to a school. A great partner wants to improve the way it serves the district by providing a continually improving product and by demonstrating accountability in their market through competitive pricing and performance.

We were fortunate to find a web tool from a company that was willing to supply websites for their competitors and willing to answer the difficult questions of point-by-point, characteristic-to-characteristic, function-to-function comparisons. A great partner encourages you to go out and look at alternatives and is eager to prove to you why they deserve to be your choice.

I believe many superintendents have developed positive, symbiotic-type relationships with professional developers, accountants, lawyers and architects. Now it is time to consider how partnerships with technology companies — both hardware and software providers — can become a part of our blueprint for continual improvement in just one more area of our operations.

Scott Kuffel is superintendent of the Geneseo Community School District, 209 S. College Ave., Geneseo, IL 61254. E-mail: skuffel@dist228.org