An EdTech Product Roadmap Hypothesis

I have this hypothesis that edtech companies are overly worried about sharing their future product roadmaps, and that they would in fact benefit from being more transparent and inclusive in the development and sharing of future plans.

December 5, 2011

I have this hypothesis that edtech companies are overly worried about sharing their future product roadmaps, and that they would in fact benefit from being more transparent and inclusive in the development and sharing of future plans.

But I could be wrong.   

My hope is to (briefly) set out the case for this hypothesis, and then invite people who actually need to pay the mortgage through edtech profits to tell us where I get it wrong (and right).

All edtech companies, from LMS to lecture capture to media management to synchronous web classroom provider, have product roadmaps going out at least 2 years. The questions are:  

How was this roadmap developed?

How transparent is this roadmap?

Reasons to Share Product Roadmaps:

Deciding on the Features: The decisions on what features, updates, and enhancements to put on the roadmap can be made in many ways. The product team may make roadmap decisions based on direct and indirect customer input, focus groups. competitive industry scans, requests from sales and marketing, or an overriding product vision. The question is the degree to which that decision making process is transparent and inclusive. As a customer, I want to know what is on the roadmap, what is not, and how these decisions were made. My argument is that the more open and inclusive the process is the better the roadmap will be.  This is not only an argument around communications, rather I think that edtech platforms and products often end up overly complex and feature laden, where a better roadmap would privilege simplification and an enhanced user experience. Everyone wants to add new features, but an open process may help in the editing, curation, and evolution of the core capabilities of the system.

Roadmap as Community Builders: Edtech companies spend lots of resources and energy on outreach and marketing. Yet, the thing that our community is most interested in (the product roadmap), is opaquely developed and hesitantly shared. Getting customers, and potential customers, authentically involved in developing the product roadmap will create more buzz, loyalty, potential leads, and community than any user conference or marketing campaign. Web collaboration tools now mean that these discussions do not need to take place in one place at one time, but can be distributed and ongoing. What would happen if an edtech company made the platforms they use to decide on product features forward facing and open, allowing the entire community to participate in conversations and decisions? Would the process quickly become unwieldy and unproductive, or would companies find they are tapping into a network of motivated and passionate contributors in the product development process? The product team still needs to make the final decisions (I'm not suggesting anarchy or even democracy), but they should be confident enough to explain their choices.

Competitive Advantage: The main reason I think that edtech companies do not share product roadmaps is the concern over the competition. Why would lecture capture company A let lecture capture company B know what is coming (and when) in the next release? I've come to the conclusion that product features are only marginally important. Edtech products are really not all that different from each other, and it is relatively easy to catch-up with features. What matters is execution, support, follow-through, and a sustained ability to understand and serve customer needs. None of these attributes can be easily replicated, and all require excellent management, passionate and talented teams, sensible business models, and long-term investments.   

The Apple Factor: The Apple factor is the idea that customers don't know what they want before they get it. Sharing future product plans, much less asking customers what they want, will only result in products that lack a coherent vision. This philosophy has worked so well for Apple that I worry it has (perhaps unconsciously) bled into our edtech world.   But for better or worse, our edtech players are not Apple. The products I'm interested in are enterprise (or school / department) sales, not direct to customers (students and faculty). Apple products play in their own ecosystem, where edtech products need to integrate into our environment.   Acting with the same secretiveness as Apple will not make you also insanely great.

Legal Issues: Whenever I sign an NDA prior to a roadmap discussion I'm told that the description of future products is speculative. It seems that there is a real fear of getting sued if a company promises something and does not deliver (or deliver on time). Most edtech companies I know are quite willing to share their roadmap under NDA. I've come to the conclusion that these same companies shouldn't worry so much about the cover of an NDA, and that any risk of sharing is outweighed by the benefits.  So I propose a rule of thumb. If you are willing to share a roadmap with a client or potential client under NDA, then it is worth really thinking about why you are not sharing the roadmap publicly on your website (with space for comments and discussion). And just maybe your fear about getting sued is overblown



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