The schools bell is ringing again for resellers, as alarms sound from a number of newly created academies that must upgrade their IT environments but lack the technical know-how and the right support.
Daniel Holmes, consultancy services manager at Leeds-based reseller LDD Group, says the opportunity is about helping academies work out IT problems partly caused by their shift from being "normal" state schools.
"We have been talking to academies out there about how they work, and now people have their head around it a little bit and they're getting second- and sometimes third-phase issues coming up," he says. "And that's important for us from an IT perspective."
LDD has a 50/50 split between corporates and the public sector. It has transformed itself from the box-shifter it was 21 years ago to a modern VAR with a much more consultative approach. It's all about understanding and giving people what they really need, he says.
"Academies need more advice; they need help because, essentially, they are on their own."
A segment of academies was forced into existence by the government, after being scored poorly by Ofsted. It was become an academy, or be shut down. Pupils have had to move schools - often in a hurry - and this has created problems for the institutions' IT, not least because many of them thought they would have no need for IT in a few
years as they had expected to be closed.
Yet as academies, they have a new board, a new budget, and no help from local authorities, which in the past might have bailed out schools in trouble, even if they made poor IT purchasing decisions.
According to Holmes, some have gone ahead and bought, for example, scores of mobile devices, such as iPads, or PCs from an OEM on the advice of their often-limited in-house IT staffers, and now need help to make the technology, as it were, work for them.
"One problem is that these devices are not secure and students are able to access illicit content on and off campus. IT teams think their existing content, web filtering and firewalls will do the trick, but they are wrong in most cases," he says. "They need someone to help pick up the pieces."
Meanwhile, they still have national targets to
meet, and pupils to educate.
"For us, because we've come in and because we've changed our business from a transactional sales base to one with a consultative point of view, we go in and sit down with them," says Holmes (pictured, right).
"We tell them we don't want to sell them any equipment - which is very bizarre-sounding to a lot of people - and we listen to them."
After gaining their trust, partly through a process of learning about their needs and then educating them on what solutions might be available, more often than not, it results in a deal - one that is part of a more holistic view, and a longer-term strategy, that will actually stand a good chance of helping them.
And when it doesn't, it often results in a deal down the track, when they really need more kit, or with a word-of-mouth recommendation from them bringing LDD one or more new customers.
"So we've kind of turned it on its head, and we go in with every customer and say: ‘Let's start at the beginning'," he says. "And we ask how can we help you meet your educational targets with IT?"
Many have legacy infrastructure that is 15 years older or more. It cannot defend the schools against modern security threats, protect information, or control access to today's online learning resources. Academies need a defined five-to-seven-year strategy that includes wireless, security and BYOD management, often across multiple sites, Holmes says.
The 1997-2007 Labour government under Tony Blair established academies in the Learning and Skills Act 2000 as a refresh of the "city technology college" concept. These in-principle independent schools were meant to boost education standards in urban areas particularly, partly by removing public sector-imposed shackles and introducing strategies that had found success in private sector businesses.
Initially, these new types of school - mostly secondary level, but also including some primary schools - were meant to specialise, for example in business studies or another subject area, but that requirement was removed in 2010.
Originally, too, they were meant to be privately sponsored to the tune of 10 per cent of their capital costs - but that requirement has also since been withdrawn. The number of academies in England, however, has continued to rise - by November 2013, there were 3,444 teaching 2.4 million of the UK's seven million schoolchildren.
Allan Bower, EMEA regional director at US-headquartered web security vendor Iboss Network Security, says it has done well in its home country and is now looking to target EMEA, with academies specifically on the radar.
"We see this as a sweet spot for our technology - but we'll take on anybody who has a computer network; we're going out to the distribution channel and want to engage with resellers," he says.
"And trying to work with the channel, we were running into resellers who haven't quite ‘got it', if you like. So to run into somebody like LDD is quite refreshing."
LDD's hard work in becoming a consultancy-led, trusted adviser is exactly what the industry needs, Bower suggests, and working with such a reseller as a vendor is even more rewarding as the opportunities that come from a consultative approach improve customer satisfaction and increase the chance of repeated deals or even recurring revenue.
"The day of the box shifters is really over," Bower says. "All the customers want suppliers to provide a service, not just a box."
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