The recent court case in which a school management information system (MIS) vendor took a multi-academy trust (MAT) to court is of concern to schools. It highlights the potential risk of vendors taking schools, colleges or multi-academy trusts to court where decisions don’t go their way. In these cases, for me the educational institutional organisation will always suffer a loss, independent of any court decision as their plans have to be put on hold while any court proceedings are undertaken.
Now first, and to be very clear, I don’t have all of the details as to the court case in question so what follows are some general thoughts and my personal opinion on the information I have read in relation to this case, and also on the wider risks and implications.
Tendering processes have to be clear and fair
I think this is one of the key issues here, that any tendering process must be fair to the parties involved and that the methodology should be clear. Time spent on ensuring this can hopefully prevent time lost in court cases. It therefore is important to consider the factors that you will decide will influence your decision making. Some of these are obvious, such as cost, service level agreements, the vendors reputation and size, while others are maybe less obvious.
Total cost of ownership
Examining the total cost of ownership is critical, as the cost of a solution, whether it is a software solution, hardware solution or mixture of the two, is more than just the upfront and annual costs. There are the costs incurred through use of staff time during the setup phase and then the ongoing maintenance of the solution. There is the cost of training staff to use the new solution, with this often being a largely hidden or at least difficult to predict cost. These factors which relate to change management need to be carefully considered and weighed up.
This is where, in my personal opinion, the issues examined during the school management court case appear to have gone a little wrong. In this case one of the vendors already had a separate contract for some of the schools within the MAT. The tending process however did not include these schools so was clearly separate to this contract. The courts assertion seems to be that the consideration of discounts in relation to this unfairly influenced the decision to go with this vendor, meaning the competing vendor was at a disadvantage from the outset.
A pragmatic view
As a Multi-Academy Trust you want consistency in your MIS due to economy of scale and ease of support when working on a single solution rather than differing solutions across schools. This put one vendor at a disadvantage from the start, in tendering for a new contract limited to a subset of all schools. I wonder if the school could have approached the existing vendor regarding exit from their contract and put out a tender for all the MATs schools? I suspect the existing vendor may have been reluctant here however it seems, in hindsight, to have been one possible solution.
We also need to acknowledge the real-world disadvantage; As the MAT is already using one vendor they already have experience of that vendor, including trained and experienced staff in using it, experience migrating to it or setting it up, etc. In any abstract examination of two equal solutions, where we have a positive experience of one of the solutions, plus have people already trained and skilled such that they could support others as a migration is undertaken, it seems clear to me that we would tend towards this solution, thereby disadvantaging the other. It’s the availability bias, its confirmation bias, and its risk aversion and sticking with what we know versus what we don’t. I note that if the current solution was poor and ill fitting in the schools currently using it, this would likely have disadvantaged them in any tendering process. The fact it didn’t suggests to me that the solution in its practical, everyday use, rather than in a sales demo, has been viewed at least neutral if not positively. I also note, assuming the two solutions did compare equally when disregarding the fact the MAT already had practical experience and skilled staff working with one of the solutions, would we then expect the MAT to simply flip a coin to pick a solution and in keeping the selection process fair?
For me this whole incident is of concern. We are in a time of limited budgets plus time pressures yet this court case took up both and may signal similar cases occurring with other vendors and schools. I note that the MAT is planning to appeal the decision so this may help in providing some clarity but only time will tell. In the meantime, it highlights the need for care in tendering processes especially where they relate to bigger sums, such as where large MATs may be involved. My learning experience from this incident seems to be that time spent in planning the process and ensuring transparency at the beginning may prevent time loss further down the line. Sadly, it has taken this incident to make this more apparent.
The only final thought I have to share is that I hope it all gets resolved as soon as possible as until it does all the schools in the MAT, and all the many students they support are simply sat waiting to find out what will happen next. This period of watching and waiting can’t be a good thing.