Periodically, we write "full disclosure" posts describing our work and how it relates to our blogging, mostly so that readers can judge any conflict of interests we may have. They are usually not particularly fun or interesting posts, but we feel they are important nevertheless.
This time is a little different. We have been thinking hard about the relationship between the blog and our paid work. After listening to a lot of readers and customers, we have some new ideas about how we can have the most impact—some of which we can talk about today, some of which we can talk about soon, and some of which we will talk about down the road.
When we first started MindWires, our consulting business, we thought of it as our day gig that paid the bills so that we could feed our blogging habit. The main connection that we thought about between the blogging and the consulting was managing any conflict of interest, so that people would have a chance to evaluate whether our client work had any influence on our writing. In other words, the main connection we saw between the two was risk.
But a funny thing happened along the way. We began to get signs that people in both our writing and our work lives saw clear benefits in the connection between the two, as well as between our work with schools and with vendors:
- The vast majority of our clients, both schools and vendors, approach us through or because of the blog, and many of them are not even aware that we are consultants. "Hey, something you wrote really helped us understand something important that we are wrestling with. We don't know what you do, but is it possible for us to pay you to help us more?"
- When we warn clients of a potential conflict of interest—for example, we when a school asks us to provide feedback on a product made by a company we had consulted for in the recent past—the vast majority of times, the client is pleased rather than worried. "Great! That means you know how they think."
- That last comment is important. University folks seem to count on us to explain how vendors think, and vendor folks seem to count on us to explain how universities think. (See Michael's recent column in the Chronicle for an example of a piece that shows each group how the other side thinks.) We get more positive comments on our writing, and more consulting business, because of this shuttle diplomacy role we play than for any other reason.
- Most folks we talked to are much more positive about a careful mixing of our blogging and paid work than we feared they would be.
All of this has gotten us thinking that an important role that many of our readers and clients seem to want us to play is as translators, mediators, and honest brokers between schools and vendors. We have resisted this idea for a while because we have seen other organizations struggle in this capacity and we recognize that it is a very hard role to take on in a way that manages some tricky ethical balancing acts and strikes the right tone. But we have gotten a lot of encouragement from our readers to take it on, and we have come to see that some of the tensions inherent in our work that we assumed were mainly risks can be assets, as long as we continue to work every day to earn and keep your trust.
So here are some of the things that are going to start changing over the next months:
- We will begin to move in the direction of building an analyst business, which means that we will sell subscription content and services that are complementary to the free content we will continue to provide on e-Literate. We will start with fairly humble but, we hope, useful reports and services, the first of which we will be announcing in the next month. But we have plans that go well beyond the normal analyst packages. We have some long-term ideas for catalyzing more productive campus conversations about how best to use technology in the service of education.
- We will further limit and focus the kinds of consulting that we do with vendors to make it complementary with our analysis and blogging. We are not sales consultants, marketing consultants, or management consultants. Most vendors come to us to help them better understand customer needs so that they can make better products. As we develop our role as mediators, we will be able to refine those kind of help offerings in a way that hopefully makes our university customers feel like we are representing their needs.
- We will slowly begin to bring the MindWires and e-Literate branding together, so that the relationship between the various parts of our work are clearer.
Here are some things that will not change:
- This blog will continue to provide the same amount, range, and quality of content that we have always attempted provide. If anything, we believe that more closely aligning our paid work to our blogging will give us more useful content that we can ethically blog about.
- All content on e-Literate and on e-Literate TV will continue to be provided under a Creative Commons license.
- We will continue to run critical pieces, of both vendors and universities, whenever we believe that doing so will have value for higher education. Pointed but constructive criticism will remain a central part of what we do.
- Neither e-Literate nor e-Literate TV will run product ads or marketing puff pieces for the vendors that we cover. Ever. Nor will they have paid advertising of any kind.
- We will continue to provide periodic updates, both in the blog and on our editorial policies page, that explain our evolving policies on disclosure and conflict of interest (among other things), so that you can judge the objectivity of our perspective for yourself.
- As part of that policy, we will continue to err on the side of calling out any potentially relevant commercial interests of ours, including but not limited to current or recent client relationships with vendors or universities that we write about.
We're pretty excited about the clarity we have come to regarding this journey we have been on and look forward to sharing the first fruits of our labor within a few weeks.