Best Alumni Software: Are You Crazy? Don’t Build It Yourself. Buy.

Best Alumni Software: Are You Crazy? Don’t Build It Yourself. Buy.

In this blog post i will be discussing why you shouldn’t build your own Alumni Software. 

So I asked the VP Alumni Relations, why did your institution build its new IT system rather than buy it from an external vendor?

And the answer went something like this…

You are right.  It was a mistake.  Our IT department is made up of very talented people.  And we decided to build it ourselves.  But it is not a scratch on what you showing me.  In fact I feel sick seeing what you are showing me, knowing that our product will never look as good and we have invested so much time and money.

I can provide some very practical arguments about why it almost never pays for an education institution to build rather than buy their own new alumni software, on-line alumni directory, website, database, networking platform or communication tool.

  1. Cost – it will cost more
  2. Time – it will take longer
  3. Quality – it will likely be less good, particularly from the user experience

Even if one were to make allowances for the fact that your institution has truly unique requirements and customizations, I still do not believe that it would make sense to build your own alumni software.

I have also noticed a strange phenomenon.  The larger and wealthier the institution is, the more likely they are to build their own alumni software and to be blunt, the more clunky and outdated their systems look.  Wealth in this case seems like a distinct disadvantage.

I have sat with some of the world’s best universities in rooms filled with their talented IT people who have the ability to build almost anything.

And here lies the root of the problem.  Schools build because they can, not because they should.

The discussion over whether a school should build or buy is overtaken by the simple fact that they have enough internal talent to actually build.  But this is not a sufficient reason to do so.

Let me use the crude example of a car.  Would you build or buy your own car?  For most of us this is a simple decision as we are unable to build, so the only option is to buy.  However imagine if you were a very talented engineer, would you really build your own car in your garage or buy one from an experienced automobile company?

Just because you can, is not a sufficient reason to build.

Rather the discussion should be centered around strategic focus.  What does your organization do better than anyone else in the world?  What is your unique expertise?  Where should you be investing your personnel and conversely, where should you be utilizing external experts?

In our fast moving world, I think the discussion is at long last moving decisively in favor of buying because of the emergence of one new factor, namely access to innovation.

I was speaking last month to a Vice President of Alumni Affairs at a very prestigious institution.  They have very talented IT personnel and budget is simply not an issue. In the past this organization had always built everything internally. Not any more.  This institution has decided to buy its new database from an established industry provider.  Their motivation was simple – it is all about innovation.  Using a database from Blackbaud or Salesforce meant having access to an ecosystem of partner vendors providing in turn access to literally hundreds of innovative products each year.

This was the clear tipping point.  Even the biggest university can no longer innovate in this specialized field at the rate of dedicated vendors.   If cost, time or quality arguments do not work, then perhaps the final knock-out punch is about having continuous access to cutting edge innovation.

The days of schools building their own systems and alumni software seem to be over.

Has your organization recently entered into a build versus buy discussion?

What was the deciding factor for you?

What would you recommend as the best way to facilitate such a sensitive internal discussion?

I would welcome your thoughts.

Worth also reading The Case for Mentoring.

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