Ray Henderson and Blackboard

How a key figure changed a company.

August 29, 2013

Sometimes we are reminded about how small our edtech community really is. Ray Henderson's announcement that he is stepping way from is executive operational role as Blackboard's President of Learning Platforms and into a strategic role on the company's Board of Directors was much noticed in our little edtech universe.

To his credit, Ray wrote a really thoughtful post about this move in his blog, which was followed-up by some excellent analysis by the indomitable Michael Feldstein.

Like Michael, I also had the opportunity to chat directly with Ray, and I second everything that Michael writes about the reasons behind Ray's move from the executive suite to the boardroom.

The really interesting story here is the question of why Ray Henderson occupies such an important position in our edtech community?

It is very difficult for executives of educational technology or educational publishing businesses to transcend their management roles and be recognized as both true partners with higher education and as thought leaders in our discipline. Ray managed to do both, and I suspect that his role on the Blackboard board will give Ray increased degrees of freedom to influence the long-term roadmap within the company and across the larger edtech industry.  

Carving out a strategic role for Ray also speaks volumes about the confidence and vision of Blackboard's CEO Jay Bhatt.  

From what I've seen of Jay he is exactly what Blackboard needs to lead a transition from a (mostly single) product platform company to an integrated and global provider of educational technology services. This transition will require both a long-term strategy and a disciplined focus on execution, and Jay has the background and experience to assemble and lead a team both fronts.

In thinking about Ray's importance to Blackboard and the edtech industry, 3 attributes keep coming to mind.

1. Ray's Focus on Culture:

My sense is that among Ray's most enduring accomplishments at Blackboard will be his role in creating a new culture at the company.  

I attribute this cultural transformation as at least partially for the company's ability to recruit Jay Bhatt, and for the positive directions that Blackboard's customers have seen in service, support, and transparency.    

Blackboard is truly a talent rich company, staffed by a sizable group of incredibly smart and passionate people. These talented Blackboard folks talk about the role that Ray Henderson has played in recruiting and retaining them, and in creating a work environment that is supportive and productive.  

Many executives talk about hiring good people and giving them the space and resources they need to succeed - Ray actually lived this talk.

2. Ray's Track Record of Success: 

One reason that Ray was so able to change the Blackboard culture is that he came from a company (Angel) that was on a trajectory to challenge Blackboard.  

The acquisition of Angel in 2009 for about $95 million was, for my money, Blackboard's smartest purchase.  

Angel was not only known for its great platform, but for the very strong relationships that it had built with colleges and universities.  

Ray's work at Angel gave him instant credibility amongst rank and file at Blackboard. The operational and cultural changes that Ray instituted at Blackboard, from an insistence on accountability within the organization to pushing authority out to the customer facing groups, were able to more rapidly gain traction as they came with a history of having succeeded at Angel.  

The lesson is that good ideas and strong social intelligence are not enough. A track record is essential.

3. A Growth Mindset:  

The last reason I'd point to as to why Ray has succeeded so well at Blackboard and the edtech industry, and why I think he has had good success in establishing himself as a trusted partner amongst educational leaders and thinkers, is that he seems to approach his role with a strong growth mindset.  

This is a mindset that says that there is always room for improvement.  

That critiquing how things are currently going is not an admission of failure, but rather a motivation for continuous improvement..  

Ray demonstrated this growth mindset with his famous "scorecard" at the the annual Bb World gatherings.  

I think that this growth mindset extended to Ray's work with us higher education customers. Working with Ray never felt like he was defending a status quo, but rather that we had a true partner in figuring out how to leverage technology to meet our educational and organizational goals.  

Does making these arguments imply that I am not critical of many of Blackboard decisions, and Ray's role in the choices that Blackboard has made?  Not at all.

It seemed clear to me a number of years ago that Blackboard needed to take much bolder action in leapfrogging past its legacy platforms and business models.  

What Blackboard should have done is spun out a separate unit to develop a true cloud-based multi-tennant LMS, one not tied to legacy code or an existing installed user base.   Instead, Blackboard got involved with acquisitions and new product lines, in the process opening the window for Instructure to fill this void.  (Instructure's Canvas LMS has been the best thing to happen to our industry in the past 5 years).

I worry that Blackboard is making the same mistake with mobile, hobbling the growth of tomorrow's global learning platforms (which will be mobile) due to the need to integrate with existing product lines and customers.

Due to its scale and reach, Blackboard will continue to be an important company in helping to shape how higher ed evolves over the next couple of decades.  

I anticipate that the future will see Blackboard will extending its global reach, both in new platforms (my bet is media management) and integrated educational services.  

The way that we should evaluate Ray's contributions going forrward should be against his success in helping Blackboard  catalyze larger changes in higher education.

Blackboard may still be the best place for Ray to impact the larger world of higher education, but Ray's influence will extend well beyond any single company.

I hope that you join me in wishing Ray well in his new position.


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