What is the biggest challenge that colleges and universities face in working with ed-tech companies?
Does the answer have to do with features? User interfaces? Visibility and influence on the product road map? Support? API availability? Data accessibility and transparency? Uptime?
Well, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.
But the real challenge that nonprofit universities face with for-profit ed-tech companies is turnover.
The overall attrition rate in the industry is 13.2 percent. Turnover at e-learning companies is somewhat better (11.6 percent) than in other sectors (gaming is 15.5 percent), but it is still high.
In almost every case, key personnel's voluntary turnover is dramatically higher at ed-tech companies than at universities. One source I found (a dissertation from 2019) puts voluntary academic staff turnover at 3.7 percent.
Now it is true that employees of for-profit companies, and especially tech companies, will always have higher turnover than at nonprofit universities. The for-profit employment picture is more dynamic than the nonfaculty academic labor market. Moving from company to company is typical and expected in tech, particularly among high-skilled and in high-demand roles.
In contrast to tech (and ed tech), university people tend to stick around. Part of the long tenures of higher ed people has to do with opportunities. There are likely not all that many similar university jobs to be had in a given region. Changing jobs in higher ed almost always involves moving. (We will see if this holds true post-pandemic if higher ed staff continues to work remotely.)
Part of why higher ed people stick around has to do with mission. We identify with our institutions. This does not mean that higher ed people — and higher ed people working at the intersection of learning and technology — don't move on to other universities. (Or move on to other nonprofits, government or companies.) Only that we move infrequently.
When key people leave ed-tech companies, their knowledge of and relationships with university partners also walk out the door.
Colleges and universities move at a pace all their own. Decisions to partner with a company — say, an LMS provider or an OPM company, or a platform vendor — are almost always deeply considered. Nonprofit/for-profit collaborations involve the input of a range of stakeholders on the university side. The culture of most schools supports the ideals of transparency and inclusivity. Authority is diffused, not centralized, meaning that broad and authentic relationships between schools and companies are essential for productive partnerships.
It takes a long time for the people who work at ed-tech companies to understand their potential and existing university partners. They need to keep track of a wide variety of players. Each constituency within a university matters. That knowledge, and the relationships that knowledge allows, can only be built over time.
That is why I'm constantly surprised that ed-tech companies do not do enough to invest in their people's retention and growth. Every company says they do this, but very few companies do this effectively.
Part of the issue is that top leadership at ed-tech companies are almost always separated from the day-to-day work of relationship management. The C-suite does not participate in the unglamorous work of ongoing collaboration, coordination and support. The value that ed-tech company professionals bring as holders of relationships with schools is underappreciated, and therefore undervalued.
The leadership of ed-tech companies needs to internalize that their first priority should be serving and supporting their employees. If they do that job, then the company will be in a much better position to serve and support their university partners.
In practice, this means putting real resources and time and attention into employee growth and retention. There should be clear and available opportunities for promotion to positions of greater authority and responsibility. Every ed-tech company should offer generous education benefits, as the best situation is when employees are also students.
Ed-tech companies, in my experience, are at constant risk of creating an environment that can lead to employee burnout. The pace of work at ed-tech companies is fast. Productivity demands are high. Normative ed-tech work expectations may be a good short-term strategy to drive short-term profits, but it is a terrible strategy for long-term employee resilience and retention. Ed-tech companies would be much better off if they prioritized flexibility, sustainability and growth opportunities for their people over short-term deliverables.
It is also my experience that most ed-tech companies are thin on the ground when it comes to head count. The lack of people means that existing ed-tech employees have to work long hours to keep everything going.
On the university side, we need to do a better job of communicating the importance of long-term relationships and long-term partners. We should be asking companies' leadership that we work with what their philosophy and practices are around employee retention. It is OK to ask what the turnover rate is and what the company is doing to lower that figure.
The success of nonprofit/for-profit partnerships — of universities working with companies — relies on personal relationships to a largely unappreciated degree.
The time for us to begin an open and critical conversation about the cost of high ed-tech employee turnover is now.
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