3 Reasons Being a University Partner Manager is the Hardest Job in Ed Tech

The toughest job in all of education technology is that of a university partnership manager. These are the company’s ed-tech professionals who maintain key day-to-day relationships with schools on the ground.

Partner managers are usually different from the people in the companies that contract (engage) with the university. Their job is to be the interface between the services offered by the company and the work of the partner university.

What makes this role of University Partnership Manager so challenging and vital to the companies they work for and the schools they partner with? I will give you three reasons.

1: Partner managers must align corporate and university cultures

There are many candidates for the most important trends driving change in the higher education ecosystem. You can point to demographic challenges, government funding shortages, the rise of online education, and the rise of non-degree programs. For my money, the most important trend we need to look at is the growth of non-profit/for-profit partnerships. Think network programs, digital marketing providers, and research and consulting firms.

It is no longer correct to consider companies that work with schools on educational programs and without studies as suppliers. They are true partners. And for the partnership to be productive, the work must be set up as relational, not transactional.

In practice, for the leaders of partner universities, this means that the lines can be blurred. The best partner managers internalize the values, goals, and even the language of the schools they partner with. Identification with the schools where they have relationships can make it difficult for the CEOs-partners in their companies.

Partner managers must figure out how to effectively advocate for their schools’ interests in their companies, while being mindful of the goals and constraints of the company they work for. It’s a difficult balancing act.

2: Their job requires them to be in the middle

University partnership managers live their professional lives in the middle of the company they work for and the schools they partner with. It takes a very skilled partner manager with an exceptionally high level of social intelligence to command equal respect from both sides.

The biggest mistake people in colleges and universities make about people in companies is misunderstanding the extent to which we all share a similar set of values, motivations, and beliefs.

Most of those who land a partner manager role at an education technology company are passionate about education and learning. They often 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 in university need to be aware of the challenges of those in a liminal professional role, caught between work and the culture of their company and universities.

3: Heads of partner universities have limited decision-making powers in their companies

In universities, decision-making is (by design) distributed. In a commercial firm, relatively few company managers have the authority to make financial decisions. The heads of partner universities are rarely able to agree on the financial terms of their company’s services. They work within the constraints of their company’s finances and policies. Partner managers can advocate for their partner schools, but they almost always have to go to company managers for financial or contractual issues.

The lack of authority of a partnership manager in companies can frustrate their university counterparts. We build relationships with partner executives and want them to be able to allocate resources and make decisions based on our work together. In reality, ed-tech leaders spend much of their time developing new business instead of managing existing contracts. Our frustration with electronic technology companies may be legitimate. However, those of us in universities must remember that our partner leaders cannot unilaterally demand more power.

A few other reasons why working as a university partner manager at a technology company is difficult:

  • Universities rarely have clear decision-making structures.
  • The timelines and time horizons of higher education are very different from the time horizons of companies.
  • The economic environment for tech is tough right now.
  • The length of a career in ed-tech does not match that of partners in a university.
  • The activities of the university are not transparent to outsiders.

The people we work with in technology companies could just as easily work in our universities. And if any of us were going to work for a technology company, we would most likely end up in the role of managing partner universities. (Companies like to put people with university experience in these roles.)

Understanding the challenges faced by our technology colleagues in university leadership positions should make our work with these people more effective and ultimately help create situations where non-profit/for-profit partnerships create shared value.

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