The way we purchase technology solutions is broken. Even the term "technology solution" doesn’t apply to the vast majority of modern IT projects. Typically, we’re working from an RFP that includes a list of stuff (that isn't tied to any success criteria) with the final decision(s) based almost entirely on price. The list of stuff is purchased, it's delivered, it's installed, and that’s the end of the story. This process is broken because the end user is never actually identified, and the results are never measured, so we don’t know if the objective was achieved. We’re never thinking about the actual customer in this scenario.
Let’s look in an unusual place for an example.
When a contractor goes to Home Depot, they’re the customer, right? They give the specs to employees, place an order for lumber, write the check, and take the materials with them. The contractor needs the stuff, Home Depot has the stuff, and the stuff has been turned over in exchange for money, so that’s the end of the story, right? Wrong. Even though the contractor is going to turn the building material into something and Home Depot is going to make the money, the real customer is the one who is going to use/consume the end product, and they’re nowhere to be seen in the transaction. Home Depot is finished once the sale has been made. The contractor completes the project and leaves. The customer is the person or family who has to live with the completed work. They’re ultimately the ones who are paying for the materials and the ones (hopefully) enjoying the completed project, but they don’t actively participate in the purchase process. They’re the ones who are going to leave the review, recommend the products to family and friends, and decide whether or not to make similar purchases in the future. If we think about it, technology departments are in a very similar situation.
This is the same relationship school IT departments have.
Moving the analogy forward, think about technology vendors as Home Depot: they have stuff, and they want to sell it. The school IT team is like the contractor: they purchase equipment and technology on behalf of the end user. IT is (technically) using someone else’s money, and the technology vendor has a vested interest in making the sale, but neither party will actually reap the benefits of the solution. So, who are the actual customers in this equation? We’ll give you a hint: they’re three feet tall and carry books. The customers is actually the students. They’re the ones who will experience the full benefit of the project. To be fair, it’s not as simple as that, since the students don’t decide which school they attend, so you have to keep parents in mind too. Additionally, the curriculum department is responsible for adopting some of the technology in a way that meets the objectives and maximizes the benefits. In this case, there’s more than one customer, but the ultimate goal is always to provide the best possible experience for the student.
Why Does it Matter Who the Customer Is?
It’s important to understand your customer for a couple of reasons. First off, they’re removed from the process, so we need to acknowledge who they are and remember their needs throughout the project. Secondly, we need to focus on the outcome, not the technology. Yes, it's important to understand the technical details to ensure the solution works correctly, but it’s equally important to understand who the customer is, what they need, and what outcome you’ve set out to provide. What are the measurable success criteria? What objectives are we trying to accomplish and why? You’ll never be able to successfully execute IT solutions without a concrete understanding of the end customer and the end goal.
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