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December 10, 2008

Vendor Relationship Management and PLEs

I'm grateful to Stephen Downes for pointing out the emerging area of VRM - Vendor Relationship Management. Delving into this space there are some very interesting parallels with the Personal Learning Environment. And also potentially some analogies for reconciling the perspectives and technologies of providers and users of education services.

The PLE concept is fundamentally very simple - to look at eLearning from the perspective of the individual rather than of the education institution. For a long time the institutional viewpoint dominated, focussed around Learning Management Systems (LMS; also known as a VLE in the UK) as the means for the institution to manage its relationships with many learners. So the PLE was a conversation-changer as much as anything else, putting forward the view that this from the learner's viewpoint this was only one of many possible relationships that they may want to help manage using technology.

Similarly, in the field of customer-vendor relationships, the discourse has primarily focussed on customer relationship management (CRM), which is based on the vendor's perspective on the relationship, which is the need to manage relationships with many customers. However, from a customer viewpoint, there is a relationship to many vendors: hence, from their perspective, we have vendor relationship management (VRM).

An interesting quote on VRM comes from Paul Greenberg, who writes:

"A VRM tool, thus is one that is unlike a CRM 2.0 tool. A CRM 2.0 tool would be something a vendor produces for the benefit of a company to engage its customers. A VRM tool would be something the customers would use to control how they relate or any or multiple vendors."

As you can see there is a very strong connection between these ideas. As Stephen Downes puts it:

VRM, then, in my books, is the idea behind the personal learning environment.

If anything, I think we'll see more progress in VRM than in PLE in the immediate future, simply because there is systemic resistance in education, not to PLEs, but to the kinds of flexible learning opportunities where individuals may need to manage multiple education relationships in parallel. Currently the PLE really is balancing the concerns of (typically) one formal education relationship with a wider range of informal learning relationships. For example, Graham Attwell responds to George Siemens' post which concerns the traction of PLEs in the education system.

What I think is especially interesting now is that a common issue has been raised recently in both the PLE and VRM communities, which is the question of how the individual and corporate perspectives, systems and concerns interact.

Doc Searls writes: :

"I've noticed a change in the last few months at the CRM wikipedia entry, and at CRM company websites. It seems to me that the CRM business is getting back to its original ambitions, which were all about understanding and helping individual customers - and improving the seller's offerings in the process. There's a limit to what can be done only from the sell side, or from researching groups rather than engaging individual customers. Some of the relationship burden needs to be borne by the buy side, by individual customers. They need tools of engagement for that. So it's VRM + CRM, not VRM vs. CRM."

This to me can be easily rephrased to suite the LMS-PLE area. If eLearning is to be realise its potential, this requires the resources of both providers and learners; the institution provides the LMS to enable teachers to handle the variety of students they need to interact with and to make their own individual workloads manageable. PLEs provide the means for students to support a rich engagement with learning, managing relationships with institutions, teachers, and other learning opportunities. Its PLE+LMS.

As with the PLE, VRM is also a difficult beast to engage with, being a collection of ideas, tools and attitudes rather than a concrete system that you download and use. This is inevitable when dealing with personal technology.

Overall I'd recommend that anyone interested in PLEs, or the question of how PLEs and LMSs/VLEs relate to each other, takes the time to read through some of the VRM material out there. The ProjectVRM wiki is a good place to start.

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