It’s hard to believe my second year anniversary at Blackboard is near. And I’m already preparing what will be my third annual report card on our progress at BbWorld 2011.
As I reflect on these two years I’m generally confident that our clients feel we’ve moved in the right direction. Our measures of client satisfaction continue to reflect steady improvement in our fundamentals. There are more messages of assurance from our clients that they’re feeling heard, and seeing positive change in how we conduct our business. Now, I hasten to say I still receive a steady stream of constructive criticism to help me remove our imperfections. But it’s pretty clear that most believe we’ve got a healthy focus on doing just that.
Meanwhile, our client dialog in recent months has focused on where they’d have us extend our reach and apply our skills and experience to help them. Consistent themes have emerged from these discussions, and our client advisors have challenged us to help them solve a broader range of problems. They’re all compelling opportunities, and they’ve all required us to widen the lens we’ve viewed education through, and think bigger about what we can become. In short, we’ve been challenged to think of ourselves as an education company, rather than as a learning management company.
Our core focus on our fundamentals and on learning management will remain. But we’re now taking some bold new steps to expand and define the purpose of Blackboard. And that purpose is to serve education by attacking a broader set of problems that we are uniquely positioned to address. While some of these problems lie within the boundaries of “learning management,” they’re not exclusive to this area. We believe that to help build a better education experience we need to continue to expand our products and services in areas across the institution. I’ll highlight a couple of areas where we’ve expanded our vision in this way. Each are examples of a new form of innovation taking root in our organization. And I can tell you that these hard problems are inspiring our people deeply. They’re finding ways to leverage our skills and experience to help solve these problems, and to contribute fresh ideas to the educators we serve.
Blackboard Analytics: Educators face problems that are familiar to most business leaders who’ve struggled to gain perspective on enterprise performance. There are multitudes of systems and data, and a difficulty in refining that data into information and perspective that’s accurate and actionable. There’s growing pressure from accreditors and others to hold institutions accountable for generating improved outcomes and greater yield from their investments, but it remains difficult to generate the perspective needed.
Our response: We’ve been investing R&D in analytics for some time, focusing on the part of the problem that most would expect of us—around performance in learning delivery. But our discussions during that period led us to the broader view that this would organize only a small part of the complex world institutional researchers and their leadership face. And so we undertook a search for partnership with a team that understood other dimensions of the problem, and how to build more comprehensive data warehousing applications that could synthesize information from all parts of educational institutions.
We were led to the team at iStrategy Solutions. They built a reputation for rapidly creating data warehousing applications that could pull data from the most common sources of student information and campus enterprise systems. We found in them a partnership that was aligned with our thinking about the need for delivering data warehousing applications that were ready for use by educators without drawn out requirement gathering and software project lifecycles. We also found a common sensibility about the importance of mapping institutional progress vs. goals and key performance indicators for leaders in real-time.
We’ve announced this week that we’ve acquired their technology and team. We’ve launched a new platform as Blackboard Analytics, and plan to use this platform to accelerate our path to market with even more innovative data warehousing applications designed to yield insight into the entire education enterprise. In doing so we aim to create greater understanding about student progression and historical performance of programs across the institution in line with how educators must look across all parts of their organization. (Interested parties: drop a note to Jim.Hermens@blackboard.com)
Blackboard Student Services: I’ve participated in many discussions with institutional leaders about creating a learning outcomes driven institution or improving retention rates through improved learning delivery. My frame of reference for this has typically begun with the stage in the student lifecycle where learning delivery is underway. But institutional leaders have reminded me many times now that there are no learning outcomes if the earlier stages of this lifecycle don’t succeed. Enrollment management and especially assisting the financial aid process are areas where institutions struggle to find appropriate support for students. These early steps in the student lifecycle figure in greatly to long term student success and retention. Even after they’ve entered the process you need to continue to provide a high level of touch and service to ensure they are retained and can complete their program.
Our response: In December we announced an acquisition of Presidium, the largest provider of end-user helpdesk services for online learners. They support hundreds of Blackboard Learn clients as well as students and faculty on other LMS and administrative systems. They are also the exclusive support firm for our Bb Collaborate platform. But one of the key reasons we pursued this acquisition was their growth in providing student lifecycle support for the critical areas of enrollment management, retention programs, and student financial aid assistance. They’ve brought impressive scale to precisely the area we’d been hearing so much about as a growing problem in education. We’ve rebranded their offerings Blackboard Student Services, and we’re investing heavily to improve the technology platform, quality of the product, and integration with our learning delivery services. (Interested parties: drop a note to Craig.Chanoff@blackboard.com)
In closing, 2011 is going to be a defining year at Blackboard. We’re intent on sustaining the positive trends in the fundamentals for our current products. Our approach to the market will continue to grow more transparent, more open, and more polished. We will improve our methods of listening to clients and organizing dialog about how to improve, and act deliberately to incrementally get better. But we’re also expanding our mission in some pretty important ways. We’re setting our sights on trying to solve a class of problems that’s well outside of the comfort zone of learning technology, although connected to it in meaningful ways. If we execute on them well, I’m confident this effort will help us further differentiate ourselves as a stronger partner to our clients.
I look forward to input and reactions from our clients and the industry. Feel free to drop me a line at Ray@blackboard.com.