Picking an edtech commercial partner can be a lot like finding a mate. You do some initial scanning of the potential partner’s online profile, maybe conduct some advanced internet stalking. Then, you move deeper--maybe you agree mutually that you’re a good match after your first meeting. But it isn’t until you’re in the middle of a relationship--or in edtech’s case, product implementation--that you find out whether you’re heading toward a beautiful mutually beneficial partnership, or towards destruction.
Last year, Long Beach Unified School District, one of the most notable districts in the world, began the vendor dating process around an Request For Proposal (RFP) for what it calls “Disneyland for educators”--a tool that evaluates teacher’s learning needs using multiple data points, helps them create a personal learning plan, and then gives them feedback on their growth by automatically pulling data from multiple sources such as observations and student data.
Hoping they could pick an out-of-the-box solution, they quickly realized that a product like this had yet to be developed. After hearing from three different companies who stepped up to respond to the proposal, the Truenorthlogic (TNL) team captured the hearts and minds of the Long Beach team.
Now, almost a year later, TNL and the Long Beach team are working closely together to see the vision of this tool come to life in what both teams characterize as a deeply committed relationship--closer to that of a “marriage” than a simple vendor-district transaction.
EdSurge got both teams together to talk about what it takes to build an ideal vendor-district relationship, along with the challenges that come up along the way and what’s needed for success from both sides.
Long Beach, when you first began the RFP process, what were you looking for in a vendor and how did you know who would make a good partner?
LONG BEACH: We knew we were entering a field that has been underdeveloped we were not going to find a total solution. We had to find a vendor that had an orientation toward growth and didn’t have an off an off the shelf mentality.
Knowing that, gave us a sense of what to look for. We listened to the way they talked about their work, their company, their product and, specifically, the way they talked about their clients. That was very telling.
We looked for a feeling of a relationship, companies that were more people oriented. It wasn’t that we made best friends in the moment we were going through the RFP process, but there was a disposition towards people that certain vendors had. We also knew, based on our own values, that if the company didn’t have a capacity for empathy and for design thinking, than it wasn’t going to work.
We didn’t know all this was what we were looking for until all the proposals were on the table and they were side by side. It was not a rubric item we had planned for, but it came out in the moment when the tough questions came up and no one had the solution. It became really clear who was willing to grow and who was willing to commit to going there.
From a company perspective, what was Truenorthlogic looking for in a good partner?
TNL: We want to let the districts process and vision drive our development. It doesn’t mean we’ll have an agile response to every request. We look for partners with a strong vision who can help move us forward and drive our development. Another thing we were looking at, in addition to a strong vision, was a commitment to meet that vision.
That was what Long Beach had. They organized around this vision, they brought in the voice of their users and they did this all very deliberately and strategically. We felt really great about every step of the way because we knew it was really well informed and will be executed on.
You both went from not knowing much about each other and how you work, to working very closely together. What happened when you began to implement your vision?
LONG BEACH: If you think of it like a relationship, we didn’t really go on our first date until our kickoff meeting. They came for the first kickoff meeting, and we were going to start wireframing the most complex part of the system.
What we discovered was we made a lot of assumptions within the RFP narrative and they made a lot of assumptions answering our questions. These didn’t come out until we met face to face. We had to get across a language gap and a language barrier where our expectations weren’t even the same. We were talking completely different language. What we thought they were going to do and what they thought they were going to do weren’t even the same thing.
For instance, we had talked about social collaboration platforms. To them that meant a message board, like Moodle. To us Moodle was a bulletin board online. We were thinking things like Google Plus, Twitter, social media, all the amazing things we’d seen at the FETC conference.
So, at the end of day two we looked at them and said, “It’s not fair to you. You didn’t know what you were walking into. We made a lot of assumptions about what we thought you knew. So, we are giving you a way out.” To their credit, they came back committed to growing with us.
We realized that what makes a successful relationship is knowing that you can have the tough conversations, without worrying that the person is going to leave.
TNL: We had some really good healthy conversations about what our expectations were and how we could work through them in time how to accomplish some of those things. We then went back to our TNL team to make sure the vision they had and the vision we had in regards to the products could be aligned.
It’s been a year of doing that. It’s an ongoing and iterative process to make sure that how Long Beach interprets things and how we interpret things are aligned. It’s about having Long Beach describe something and our response being neither yes or no, but thinking about how we can make that work. It might not be how either one of us envisions it but it often ends up being in a way that’s better for everybody.
Having been through that initial roadblock, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges to building really great partnerships between companies and districts?
LONG BEACH: The one that has been the hardest is wrapping our heads around the language. We’ve developed a lot of trust as a group. We have a lot of respect for each other as a group. No one thinks they are the smartest person in the room. But there are always assumptions we are making. For instance there are all these rules around roles, access and rights in different systems and different modules. It’s so complex, that trying to find a way to quickly communicate it to the user is very very hard to wrap our heads around. It makes sense to the TNL team and their technical language. But we need to figure out how do we bridge that gap and create a document with language that speaks to both sides.
TNL: Our challenge is to eventually create a system that speaks in their [Long Beach’s] language, not in a language we have to teach them. This is what we are working toward.
What advice do you have for districts or companies trying to find the right partner?
TNL: The biggest piece of advice we have for other companies is find districts who share a vision. And find a group that’s organized around the execution of that vision. Also, keep in mind: getting it done isn’t as important as getting it done right.
LONG BEACH: We have four pieces [of advice]. One, don’t go with a vendor who says you break it you buy it. Two, when you find someone with a growth mindset, gravitate toward them. Don’t settle for people whose growth is static. Three, do your homework. Read the fine print in the RFP responses cover to cover, because that’s where the language barriers are going to surface.
If you don’t do a lot of your homework on the front end, make your ask clear and then follow up to vet the content, you can’t put a ring on it and expect the vendor to change. Make your assumptions overt on the front end so you both know what you’re getting into. Finally, always start with the teachers and make sure they have a voice.