Tech Talk: Vendor as Consultant

June 1, 2009
Is it a conflict of interest?

Choosing the right technology consultant is a critical business decision. There is a real difference between an independent technology consultant and a vendor/consulting firm.

The technology-services profession seems to be constantly reinventing itself. Not too long ago, the educational-technology business barely existed: Those selling technology to education institutions generally were selling hardware or software. Profits were generated through markups on these hard goods, and any services that were provided generally were delivered by the manufacturers or their authorized dealers. Prices were high, the products were complex, the market was difficult, and schools typically were on the lagging edge of technology.

In today's marketplace, some technology vendors have sought to expand their services. But while consultants sell time, advice and act as part of management to education institutions, vendors sell products, hardware, software and installation services. The primary goal for a consultant is client success; for the vendor it often is bottom-line profit. Therefore, how can vendors serve an education client as consultants if they also want to sell products?

Consider why technology consultants exist in the first place. They are essentially a substitute or outside support for an in-house IT department. Now, imagine if an education institution hires a vendor that also does IT consulting. The vendor may recommend that a school buy hardware and software that the vendor sells, and then may be allowed to submit a bid to the school. That is an obvious conflict of interest.

But many vendor/consultant IT service providers — the ones considered to be vendors rather than consultants — are going even further in that direction. They are both recommending and selling nearly every bit of technology that an education institution needs. And to further cement the relationship, they are bundling these goods and services together in long-term service contracts.

Many people think it is wrong for a vendor/consultant to become the “trusted adviser” to a school, and then use that trust to sell a whole slew of goods and services that have been designed to generate profits. No one is suggesting that any particular vendor/consultant firm has evil intentions or that clients are receiving substandard services. But because of the conflict of interest, some worry that it may be difficult for institutions to find consultants that provide objective opinions.

Many factors go into a search for the right technology consultant. A consultant who is vendor- and manufacturer-neutral is likely to play a more integral role in achieving a school's long-term goals. That is why it is essential to treat the research and selection process for a consultant in the same manner as hiring a full-time employee.

C. William Day is senior analyst at KBD Planning Group, Young Harris, Ga., a firm specialized in education facilities and technology planning. He can be reached at [email protected].

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