BbWorld 2012: Balancing Tomorrow's Opportunities with Today's Responsibilities

My conclusions from day one of BbWorld, after listening to a range of Blackboard leaders and managers, are as follows:

July 10, 2012

My conclusions from day one of BbWorld, after listening to a range of Blackboard leaders and managers, are as follows:

Blackboard's Organizational Culture is Healthy: I have been listening carefully to as many Blackboard employees as I can meet. My impression is that the people who work for Blackboard are both confident and curious, and that they feel valued by the company. No organization is perfect, but Blackboard feels to me like a functional and productive place to work. This positive culture is owed in large part to Ray Henderson, President of Academic Platforms and CTO, who seems to have actively invested much of his time and energy into both modeling effective behavior and creating an organizational structure that supports the company's mission and its people. Blackboard also benefits from having a cadre of senior and mid-level leaders who have been with the company for a number of years, and who bring a welcome dose of experience and calmness to the often faddish world of educational technology. Blackboard's strong culture and quality people are amongst the company's most important assets, and I'd recommend that the company do more to promote both.

Blackboard is Increasingly Mission Driven: I think the expansion of Blackboard's product lines beyond the core LMS (with the MoodleRooms, Netspot, Analytics and Mobile acquisitions) has been a very positive development for the company. Every Blackboard employee that I spoke with is focused first on supporting the mission of their clients, rather than solely increasing the market share of any given product. This development is only possible when you have a range of platforms that you can sell, and with Moodle, Sakai, products in the mobile, analytics, services, messaging, and synchronous learning spaces this client-centered approach is possible for Blackboard. 

These two (very positive) conclusions, however, are balanced against the significant challenges that the company will be facing over the next few years.

Amongst Blackboard's most pressing challenges will be balancing the demands of evolving existing services and products while adequately investing in developing tomorrow's opportunities. Achieving this balance between present demands and future opportunities is a huge challenge for Blackboard's leadership, mostly because both of these tasks are so immense.

Today's Responsibilities:

User Interface and Usability Improvements: When it comes to the core LMS platform, Blackboard does not benefit from its long tenure. The world of software has moved away from locally installed and run all-encompassing enterprise systems to modular, web based platforms designed to be delivered as a service.   Even though Blackboard has a strong hosted business, this approach cannot compete with an entire business built around a true multi-tenancy web services model.  Instructure can update Canvas every two weeks (or more) without interrupting service, where locally hosted Blackboard school's must take the their systems down during maintenance windows to push through large updates. Blackboard Learn must also work on a variety of server and database set-ups (for local hosting), where Canvas can be optimized around a best-in-breed scalable server/database architecture. Blackboard must find some way to overcome these structural difficulties and compete with new entrants in the LMS market (as well as the range of consumer online services) if the company hopes to remain competitive.

Create Services Around the Full Range of Platforms: The other big challenge that Blackboard has today is to create service offerings around all the products that they offer. A service engagement will generate more revenues than a straight product license, but these fees are earned the hard way. Services must truly add value for the clients. This requires that Blackboard continue to staff up its Global Services division with people both experienced in higher ed and who have strong project management, communication, and analytical skills.   Building or buying products is relatively easy, developing a services based organization is a challenge. I think Blackboard is well positioned to make these investments and transition into a service led company, but I worry that this task could distract the leadership from adequately investing in tomorrow's opportunities.

Tomorrow's Opportunities:

Build the Largest Non-Publishing Global Integrated Education Services Provider: Blackboard's 2020 potential is much larger than its current brand footprint. I think that Blackboard should rebrand into an overall services company (perhaps BGS - for Blackboard Global Services), and retain the Blackboard name for the core LMS product. BGS would bring to mind IBM, another company that moved from products to services. A newly constituted BGS could focus on growing its global educational services division, and allow the core Blackboard product group the autonomy and focus to innovate.  Whether or not Blackboard rebrands itself, and splits out its product from its services division, I think that the company must set much more audacious growth targets than it is currently talking about.  Part of Blackboard's reluctance to talk about future growth is, I think, an outgrowth of a desire to be client focused. This is a good objective, but I think that the need to be client focused is holding the leadership back from recognizing and engaging the exponentially larger educational services opportunities that are developing in the growth economies as higher education is transformed by technology, migration, urbanization, and a growing worldwide consumer class.

Create New Educational Opportunites: I've been quite taken by the Tata Nano. This is a car built by the Indian mega Tata corporation designed for non-car consumers. This sub $2,500 car is intended for families that would normally have the income to purchase only a motorbike. In designing the Nano, Tata did not start with an existing model and try to take costs out.  Rather, they started from scratch - building the car around the goal of meeting this low price. Blackboard, and other large technology and education companies, have the same opportunity when it comes to education. The largest market for students in the 21st century will be the people who are currently too poor to afford a post-secondary education. Most of these learners will live in emerging economies, but the rich world still has plenty of people without the resources to enter formal education. A global education services company, if Blackboard does indeed become such a company, enjoys a fantastic opportunity to create services (and make money from) the world's next students.

What do you see as Blackboard's current responsibilities and future opportunities?


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