Yup, Something (Good) Is Up at Blackboard

When a company the size of Blackboard makes substantial organizational changes, it can be difficult to assess what is really going on. In the beginning, the stories tend to look similar. The old CEO…decides he wants to “spend more time with his family.”[1] Well-known long-time employees leave the company en masse, some of their own volition and others not. It’s a common enough story trope, but it comes with two distinctly different endings. In one version, the company accelerates its downward spiral until it crashes spectacularly. In the other version, everybody is amazed at the company’s revitalization and they live happily ever after. It is nearly impossible to tell from the beginning of the story how it will end. All of the people leaving the company are, of course, unhappy and are likely to have negative opinions of what’s going on. And often they have valid criticisms, even in the stories that later come to happy endings. When an executive is trying to turn around a billion-dollar company quickly, a scalpel won’t do it. Some meat cleaver work is necessary. Collateral damage is inevitable even in the best of cases. So reports from former employees are interesting but don’t tell the whole story. Customers won’t see the results of the changes for a while, so there will be few clues there. In fact, they may see things get worse before they get better due to the chaos of the reorganization. And even the employees who are on the inside often don’t know what to think in the early stages.

And so it has been with Blackboard. Up until recently, it has been very hard to tell which way the story will go. But I agree with Phil that we’re beginning to see early signs that we may get the happy ending here. I had an opportunity to visit Blackboard this week, and what I heard is very consistent with Phil’s recent experiences with them.

Returning to Roots or Growing New Ones?

In his recent public speeches and interviews, Jay Bhatt has repeatedly talked about Blackboard “returning to its roots as a product company.” The question that immediately occurred to me upon hearing this is, “When was Blackboard a product company?” In its earliest days, Blackboard was a consulting company. Almost every product it has, it gained through acquisition, including Blackboard Learn. Now, along the way, they did acquire some product companies. WebCT was a product company. ANGEL was a product company. Both of those organizations produced some innovations. Moodlerooms was a product company too, although in a slightly odd way due to their relationship with the Moodle mother ship. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Blackboard never produced quality or innovation in its products, those descriptors certainly were not hallmarks of the company. Not ever, that I can recall. Blackboard’s competitive strategies were all about business and finance, not about design. Even when they did innovate in design, those innovations were often driven by a primarily financial strategy rather than a grand product vision. And the product visionaries from the company’s acquisitions—folks like Chris Vento and Dave Mills—left. (Ray Henderson is a critical exception, although I consider him to be more of a product-focused leader than a product visionary.) To be fair, because I was persona non grata at Blackboard for a number of years, I had not attended a BbWorld or had other normal relations with the company until relatively recently. That left me with few opportunities to meet many  folks in the Blackboard rank and file. So I wondered: Does Blackboard have the people it needs to become a product company?

I put this question rather pointedly to Ray Henderson and Katie Blot. Unsurprisingly, they insisted that it does. Ray was particularly emphatic that there are good people who have been hindered by management priorities and Blackboard’s rollup-like internal organization. By his account, Blackboard began making changes to accelerate product innovation some time in the spring of 2012. (This timing is consistent with the changes that Phil observed at BbWorld this year, which weren’t obvious to me a year ago at BbWorld in New Orleans.) When Jay came on board, he immediately took some relatively dramatic steps to accelerate this change in focus, according to Ray. These changes have not been fully deployed yet, either. Ray pointed to the recent hires of Gary Lang and Mark Strassman, under whom product management and engineering will be united across products, as one of the important next steps. And of course, Jay has promised a very significant increase in investment in Learn development.

All of this sounds reasonable, but what impressed me the most was the level of enthusiasm I saw. I’ve known Ray for a long time, and while he is a very capable diplomat, he is not very good at selling a line that he doesn’t believe in. I have seen him, in the early days of his tenure at his current gig, when he was trying to be a good soldier about a policy that he didn’t agree with. He wasn’t very convincing. But this week he seemed genuinely fired up about Blackboard’s focus on product and ability to execute, as did Katie.

Meet the Product People

Later in the day, I had the chance to meet with Blackboard’s VP of User Experience Stephanie Weeks and Vice President of Product Management Brad Koch. Brad is a former ANGELista, while Stephanie has been at Blackboard since 2004. They impressed me. As I mentioned in a recent post, I have come to be a real believer in the value that Agile and Lean techniques can bring to educational product management. Everything that Stephanie and Brad told me is very consistent with the way that I believe product should be developed. Here are some highlights:

  • The company has released 60 updates that “would be meaningful to the customers” in the last 14 months
  • Because a lot of those updates are built on top of a newly beefed up version of the Building Blocks API, most of them did not require customer database changes or other changes to the core (meaning that they were a lot less intrusive to install).
  • The company spent $4 million on QA automation testing and can now regress “the bulk” of Learn “overnight.”
  • On average, 250 users had input on each feature. (It’s not at all clear to me what this number means in practice, but the fact that they are going to the trouble of keeping records that enable them to count suggests a product management value that I think is critical.)

All of this creates the preconditions for innovation by tightening the feedback loop and reducing the amount of development team effort spent fixing bugs. The degree to which the team has the talent to actually innovate remains to be seen, but I really liked the thinking behind the prototypes that Stephanie showed me. And again, there was the enthusiasm. I got the definite sense that the two of them felt unleashed. They confirmed Ray’s timeline, too. Something broke loose in the spring of 2012 and has accelerated since Jay joined the company.

“I’m Not Dead Yet!’

Blackboard’s LMS competitors generally don’t take them very seriously anymore. One industry insider who shall remain nameless told me at one point that they have been “feeding off of Blackboard’s carcass.” Other competitors have been just as blunt, if somewhat less colorful. With the WebCT platform transition completed, converting Blackboard customers was always going to get harder for those other companies around now. But we may—and I stress may—be about to see some renewed competition from the old giant. We’ll know for certain when we start seeing them win new U.S. customers. (Right now, Blackboard is still dropping press releases that crow about existing customers who choose not to leave.) But that’s a lagging indicator of the turnaround. We should have some confirming leading indicators over the next year, based on what the company releases between now and BbWorld 2014. We think there is a reasonably good chance that Blackboard will make some product moves that could starting putting pressure on their competition in the next 12 to 24 months. This is just a feeling based on  process and affect at this point, but Blackboard appears to be doing the things that a good product company should be doing. You heard it here first.

I’ll be doing a follow-up post specifically on the state of their analytics platform.

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  1. Or “hikes the Appalachian trail.” Pick your favorite euphemism. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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16 Responses to Yup, Something (Good) Is Up at Blackboard

  1. Kris says:

    Why did it take Bb so long to realize that customer satisfaction & usability, from a product development perspective, are so important? We just left Bb for Canvas, and Canvas (while not perfect) does get this part of it.

  2. It probably wasn’t a question of “Bb realizing” so much as it was one of who is in charge. We may never know for certain what precipitated the change, but it certainly appears that Michael Chasen may have progressively lost influence with Blackboard’s new owners over time. And to be fair, Blackboard’s customer satisfaction levels have improved significantly over the last few years. They just started from a very low baseline.

  3. I’m glad to hear they are moving in a better direction as a company but you can draw a lot of parallels to Microsoft from here. They established a dominant market share then stopped caring. A bunch of competitors released different (and in a lot of cases better) products resulting in an erosion of their marketshare. Couple that with what in my experience has been dreadful customer support ended up with them HAVING to improve.

    The bigger concern now, is it too little too late and how much can they effect the bottom line. For example my school used to use several Bb services. We also switched over to Canvas last year and could save/eliminate 2 services, keep the same functionality and save cost. With so many higher ed institutions hurting for money the cost of the service is going to become more and more of a factor.

    All in all it’s a good thing for higher ed that Bb will survive. More competition leads to more innovation, and hopefully better products.

    @Kris I agree Canvas isn’t perfect but every day I am refreshed when they find something that’s wrong and have it fixed within a few hours.

  4. Thanks for the interesting post, Michael. I am curious as to how you would now–in view of what you see at Bb–advice HE institutions that are using Bb but are considering leaving. Seems to me they face an interesting “costs-benefit calculus.” Benefits of staying: Avoid potentially high transition costs (how significant may these be?), including training costs for the new system (although Canvas and some others may be relatively easy to use). Costs of staying: Will miss out on various benefits, including potentially lower costs, better usability etc of the new system they chose, and will need to continue to live with the things they don’t like about Bb. I know that San Jose State University and University of California Berkeley are among those that have gone through this calculus and decided to jump to Canvas. Your thoughts?

  5. I’d be curious to find out who you see as their current competition, and whether you think the anticipated changes will expose them to new competitors, or remove existing competitors, based on the types of services and products you expect to be developed.

  6. Elif, I don’t think this changes the advice we would give very much. Phil and I generally do not tell our university clients which LMS they should pick or which vendors to avoid. We’re big believers that the folks who have to live with the decision should be the ones who make it. We tend to focus on ensuring that the decision-making process is a good one, in the sense that it gets all the real needs out on the table and lets the stakeholders get a good view of how those needs match with their options.

    None of the information that Phil and I got from Blackboard is super-secret. As a school with a contract up for renewal, you should be able to see the same mock-ups and ask the same questions that we did. In some ways, it comes down to the degree to which Blackboard can gain or regain your trust, based on what you’ve seen in the past year and what they tell you about the year to come. So I guess my advice would be to put down the functional checklists and engage in a conversation with them. Look them in the eye, tell them what you’re concerned about, and give them a chance to respond. Your vendor should be your partner. As I have written before, having a partner that you trust in your LMS provider is almost certainly more important than having the one with the best features.

    Jen, it’s not clear to me that the constellation of competitors is going to change much, other than the collision of LMS providers and MOOC providers that Phil and I have been writing about. I’m not at all sure that the level of innovation we can expect from any of these vendors is enough to re-invent the product category or create a new one.

  7. Gary (@icteducation) says:

    Hi Michael, apologies for picking up on something a little off topic but which you linked to in your comment above: http://mfeldstein.com/advice-for-small-schools-on-the-lms-selection-process.
    It was a very interesting post but I noted that it was from a years back so a couple of questions arose:
    - If you were to write that post again today, what, if any, of the advice would you change?
    - If you were to change any of the advice, what technology, market or business change would be the driver to do so?
    I look forward to hearing your thoughts, or maybe a fresh post on the topic?

  8. Eilif, I think that the future is going to be built on the notion that learning content has to be platform-agnostic, standards compliant, and able to move freely in the online learning space. Schools that built their courses on Angel, Bb etc. have ended up with content that is not easily repurposed in other LMS’, including the more corporate training oriented platforms like Lynda.com. As schools start to take into consideration the fact that they need an exit strategy should their vendor become a problem, this issue of low-threshold-cost portability is going to become a bigger factor. That is where a platform like Canvas can shine.

  9. Gary, I’d say my main error with that post was underestimating the likelihood of LMS companies being acquired in that time period. That said, I’m not sure that I would have advised schools to do anything different had I known. I think the advice largely stands.

    Pamela, while I agree in principle with the idea of platform-agnostic, standards-compliant content, in practice it is not so simple. “Content” is not just words and pictures anymore. It’s navigation. It’s sophisticated assessments. It’s adaptivity. In short, it’s functionality as well as presentation. We don’t have good standards to support a lot of that yet, and the ones that we do (like Common Cartridge, for example) are least-common-denominator in a lot of ways. Portability is an important value to consider, but it comes with trade-offs.

  10. Thanks for your comment, Pamela. And very timely, as I just listened to a good Educause ELI podcast on Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). I agree that being able to port content easily from one system/platform to another is important and having content stuck in proprietary platforms is not the way to go. Is this still a problem in Blackboard, so that users have a hard time porting content created within Bb to other systems? (and if so, I guess this becomes a major cost hurdle for moving to another platform)

  11. Phil Hill says:

    Gary – I see Michael didn’t take your bait to update and re-publish that post. Maybe I’ll tweak him as well :}

  12. Peter Hess says:

    When I worked in television in the 1970s I learned the phrase “No one ever got fired for buying RCA”. When I moved to computing in the 80s, it was even more common to hear “No one ever got fired for buying IBM”. I assume there’s no need to elaborate on what happened to those heuristics. I’ve not heard “no one ever got fired for buying Blackboard”, but my sense is that a similar dynamic contributes to much of Blackboard’s current market share, and that its fate will be the same as RCA’s and IBM’s. Inertia is a very hard phenomenon to overcome (it looked like IBM was going to swing it for a while, till linux, Oracle and Microsoft customers said “uh uh”). At first inertia works for you, until it starts to work against you. I perceive Blackboard as having entered that second phase already. A turn-around would be quite a remarkable thing.

  13. I am curious about the degree to which Blackboard has moved towards become more student/learner centric rather than content and teacher centric? And does it architecture constrain it in moving even more in the direction of student centricity? And is this where Instructure and other (newer) competitors can gain an edge over Bb?

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  15. Gary (@icteducation) says:

    Thanks for the response Michael.

    Phil – please feel free to “tweak” away :)

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