First, I think we should take a moment to acknowledge the role that Michael Chasen has played over the past 15 years as a founder and CEO of Blackboard in changing our edtech industry.
Many will disagree with me, but I believe that Blackboard has been part of accelerating a transition to active learning at scale, and the growth of the LMS industry has made possible the rapid diffusion of blended and online learning.
Michael Chasen's role in bringing both capital and consolidation to an underfunded and fragmented edtech industry should not be minimized.
I hope that our community joins me in wishing him well as he transitions out of Blackboard and embarks on his next adventure - I suspect that there are a few more edtech companies that Michael Chasen is yet to build.
What advice would you give Jay Bhatt, Blackboard's next CEO?
A good place to start is Ray Henderson's terrific essay on Michael Chasen's stepping down. In this essay, Ray gives some insight into the thinking of the Blackboard board in recruiting Bhatt, writing that:
"In business terms he helped create a company that’s much larger than Blackboard, and more like what we’ll be in the next decade."
Ray provides a very clear indication of the plans of Providence Equity Partners to significantly grow Blackboard into the dominant player in educational technology platforms.
I have 4 pieces of advice for Blackboard's new CEO:
1. Resolve to Take Bold Action: My read is that Blackboard is entering a period with both a high potential upside and a high level of potential risk. The risk comes from the fact that Blackboard did not focus early enough, or with enough resources, on its core LMS platform. Blackboard's technology and user experience evolved at server app speed where the industry is increasingly moving towards web service speed. The potential upside is that Blackboard's acquisitions, the same acquisitions that distracted the company from its core LMS services, should start to result in a superior value proposition if Blackboard can full integrate the product stack and provide customers with a seamless end-to-end e-learning infrastructure. A vision to create this integrated e-learning ecosystem and a plan (with a tight timeline) needs to be articulated and funded, and the window is fairly small in which to accomplish these tasks.
2. Follow a Mobile First Strategy: Bhatt should consider moving the company out of DC to San Francisco. This probably will never happen …. but he should at least ask if it should happen. Why? Because the future of e-learning platforms is a seamless experience across any screen - from mobile to tablet to browser. The only way to get there, I believe, is to design for mobile first. This is not to say that everyone will or should access e-learning tools through an iPhone, iPad or Android device. I like my MacBook Air, my keyboard, and my browser. But I want the experience to be elegant, clean, and consistent across whatever screen I happen to be holding. If a move is impossible then it seems necessary to at least get the Learn and the Mobile teams much more closely integrated ….. and to make clear that the future of Blackboard's platforms are as much on mobile as on the browser.
3. Re-Build the Core Platform and Product Business Model Around the Cloud: This will be a difficult transition. Blackboard's customer base is accustomed to a user experience that stays consistent between major upgrades …… with the majority of clients (I believe) hosting their own Blackboard instance. Blackboard's technology and licensing are built around this model. And this model needs to change. Moving from an autonomous server to a multi tenant cloud architecture will be challenging. The reason to make this change is that software provided as a service is better software, as all resources can be invested in evolving a single platform. The path to this transition will come through modularizing Blackboard's platforms, so that each piece (first calendar, then discussion board, then assessment engine, and on and on), is provided as a web service. Eventually, the container to all these modules can also be replaced by a SaaS platform, easing the migration and transition path for all customers. A firm plan with adequate resources and an aggressive but realistic timetable needs to be put in place to manage this transition.
4. Split Off and Grow the Services Business: Finally, I believe that the services division needs to be spun-off and significantly bolstered (probably with a major acquisition). Spinning off the services division would allow for both a re-branding and a clarity of the resources necessary to grow educational services to the scale necessary to generate sustained and significant profits.
Executing on these 4 recommendations will be very difficult.
At this point, I don't think we know if Blackboard's new CEO and his leadership team will be able to pull off the transitions necessary to bring the company into the first tier of information technology companies.
I do know that the opportunity for growth in education is enormous, and that we are at the beginning of a true renaissance in how learning is designed and experienced.
What recommendations do you have for Blackboard's next CEO?