Are you in New Orleans this week for the big Blackboard conference (or BbWorld as the company brands the conference)?
What are your big goals for the conference? What do you hope to learn from Blackboard?
The 4 things that I'm hoping to learn from BbWorld are:
1. From Products to Services:
This BbWorld comes at a critical time for Blackboard as the company seeks to reinvent itself from an LMS platform vendor to a provider of e-learning services. The purchase of Moodlerooms and Netspot was one pillar in this strategy, allowing the company to move from a product centric focus (the Blackboard LMS and its extensions) toward the goal of platform agnosticism. The future of Blackboard should be an institution/client centered service provider that is able to assess the full needs of partner schools, and then offer implementation, integration, and support services best tailored to the clients needs. It may be that the best LMS fit is Moodle or Sakai, an evaluation that a services oriented Blackboard could assist in making, and on which the company could follow through with a full implementation engagement.
Blackboard (the company) needs to move from a product to a services orientation to increase margins (services have much higher margins than products), reduce customer acquisition and retention costs, and to stay ahead of disruptive competitors (such as Instructure). A product based company is extremely vulnerable to client flight, as maintaining legacy customers makes it difficult to adequately invest in the type of next generation learning platforms that institutions seek. Conversely, a services based company can add value to clients beyond the core LMS platform, and therefore generate both higher margins and expected long term revenues. Blackboard is working to position itself to provide the full stack of e-learning needs, from core LMS platforms to mobile learning to analytics to student life cycle management to notifications to synchronous learning and collaboration.
The question is: Will Blackboard be able to pull off this transition from a product provider to a services partner with enough conviction, quality and speed to change the perception of the company within the higher ed community? How far will Blackboard's leadership go in articulating this vision? Does Blackboard have the pieces in place to be a one-stop e-learning services partner? Will potential or existing clients develop the faith in Blackboard that the company will not push specific products, but be able to independently evaluate the client needs and recommend the platforms that offer the highest ROI for the client?
2. Blackboard's Employees:
I plan to ask every person I meet who works for Blackboard about the company's goals. What I'll be looking for is if the various Blackboard folks that I speak with share a common set of goals. Whether these goals are specific or abstract. What the timetable is for these goals. And what resources and strategies the company will be investing in to meet these goals. I'll start to get worried if I only hear platitudes like "to be the best partner" or "provide the best services" without a consistent story of the steps and investments that the company will be making.
The reason I plan to ask every Blackboard person I meet about the company goals is not only that I'm interested in the answers (I am), but that I'm curious about the degree to which Blackboard employees are united around a common strategy. The ability of Blackboard to thrive over the next 5 years will depend as much on the quality of its people as the quality of its software. This is particularly true as the services group grows, as Blackboard's corporate success will increasingly rest on the ability to provide solutions that drive value at partner institutions. Selling an e-learning platform is no longer enough. Blackboard will need to demonstrate an ability to bring about measurable improvements in revenue, cost reduction, and quality for its clients. As Blackboard goes down this "consulting" path, more and more of the people who work for Blackboard will have to act and think like consultants. This means incentivizing, recruiting and retaining Blackboard employees in ways that are different from traditional software sales and e-learning product company practices.
3. The Blackboard Product Roadmap:
I'll be working hard to understand Blackboard's specific roadmap for platform innovation and improvement. I need to get a clear idea of exactly how Blackboard plans to evolve its core LMS tools, particularly collaboration tools (discussion board, blog), calendar, and mobile integration. The collaboration tools and integrated course calendar of the core Blackboard platform has fallen behind competitors, and unless these deficiencies are addressed in the short-term no long-term transitions to an integrated service company will be possible. (I'll also be looking to see if 3rd party vendors are filling the gaps in the core products via Building Blocks).
I will be interested to see if Blackboard has the corporate bandwidth to push product and strategic innovation together. I wonder about the degree to which the product teams have the necessary people and resources to push the platforms forward. I'll be looking for as many specifics in technology, features, and usability changes as I can gather - as well as commitments (or at least plans) around timelines.
4. Blackboard in 2020:
If Blackboard wants to thrive in 2020 the company can't waiting until 2018 to start getting ready. The hard work of sustained future innovation requires present investment and planning. I'll be very curious if Blackboard has dedicated people and resources towards innovative, generation skipping services and products - as opposed to evolutionary or incremental changes. Does Blackboard have a dedicated team working on e-learning platforms that are not tied to existing product architectures or business models? Has Backboard dedicated people and resources to step outside of the daily need to service clients and incrementally improve the platforms to work solely on next generation platforms?
The one book that I would recommend that the leadership at Blackboard all read (and you as well) is The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge  by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. No other single book has so influenced how I understand the structures and steps necessary to support sustained organization change and innovation. When it comes to innovation good ideas and existing organizational structures are never enough, as we all have ideas and our existing structures are designed for today's customers and products. I'm very interested in understanding how Blackboard is thinking about and planning for 2020.