Well folks, its that time of year again. The time when users of the now myriad of Blackboard products come together for Blackboard World. This year’s pilgrimage takes us to the company’s hometown, Washington DC, and the banks of the Potomac River. While this year’s event at the Gaylord National Resort should be somewhat familiar to long time attendees (Blackboard World was there in 2009). Blackboard has been very busy this year working on a new versions of their products: Blackboard Learn 2015 and a new Blackboard Collaborate. All while continuing to improve quality and keeping up with the speedy pace of development in the LMS space.
Every year I take some time to review what’s been going on around Blackboard. I take the time to talk to friends and colleagues about their thoughts and concerns with the company. With all that input I create a short list of what items Blackboard needs to address at its upcoming conference. Here is the list for this year.
Under Promise, Over Deliver – Blackboard has never been one to get a product out at the exact time. For example, a service pack promised in the second quarter almost always means the release will come out the last week of June. We all understand that there is a balance when dealing with a software / technology company.
However this July will mark the start of year three for “Project Ultra”. The demonstration of this new product back in 2013 was exciting, but the wait and its delays has scorched many bridges the company has with users and institutions. In 2014, the company demonstrated a new Java-free version of Collaborate (I call it Collaborate decaf.) and almost 11 months later the product isn’t out for general use. As Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” and those words should be heeded by Blackboard. A mea culpa from Jay Bhatt is in order from the stage at this year’s conference. Folks who I’ve talked with believe that Blackboard shows off new shiny products only to try to keep its current customer base from leaving for other products.
Community Support and Overhaul – Another issue that Blackboard must address is the lack of community support from the company in recent years. Several years back the Blackboard community, made up of Blackboard regional events and user group meetings / conferences, made the community a major selling point for the company. Since that time, a revolving set of personnel changes and other contributing factors put the community in a lackluster place. Blackboard leadership clearly need to recognize the importance of the user community and provide plenty of funding for it. Moodle, Sakai, Canvas, and BrightSpace base part of their success on a vibrant and engaged community. This community helps sell the product to organizations. The lack of community support by Blackboard leadership shows their need to jump back in and show clients they care.
Honestly address the status of the company – A lot of change has happened to Blackboard in a mere six years since Blackboard World was in its backyard. A big discussion within many user circles has been the turnover of long time technical experts who developed and supported the product. While some of the turnover could be just general change, customers can see via social networks like LinkedIn that long time employees are leaving the company. Those employees developed a rapport with customers and partners. I would suggest that the company just address personnel rollover so it is no longer an item that many whisper about.
Get your head out of the cloud – As I said last year, the biggest buzzphrase in IT circles is “the cloud”. Moving applications to it seems to be the driving force for Blackboard Learn 2015, aka Ultra. But the company doesn’t appear to show any interest in working with self-hosted clients who want to use Blackboard Learn 2015, but continue on-site hosting. The company needs to pull its head out of “the cloud” and accept the realization that Blackboard Learn 2015 will need to allow cloud and self hosting for the version to be successful.
It’s Blackboard, not Blackhole – Over the past year, the company has continued to see changes. With those changes users appear to see a lack of communication between a variety of groups within the company. An example of this is the rollout of the new Blackboard Collaborate. Some Blackboard folks gave the impression the product would be rolled out soon. A few even suggesting that institutions go ahead and request Ultra access via the support portal. Support teams told requesting institutions completely different information stating that the product wasn’t ready and would close their request. Another request was made after seeing documentation on the new Blackboard Collaborate released to the public and instructions on how to request it. The request even used the “Request Ultra View” option. Collaborate Support again told our team the option was unavailable and closed the ticket.
This is a complete failure of communication. An excellent example of the old saying. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” The company as a whole has been a big black hole where no information about the status of products, new information on road maps, or new general information ever seems to come out. Without communication, users and institutions are not educated on the status of the company. No education can create concerns and worries about the stability of the company, its products, etc. In the end, it can be part of a reason that institutions start to look for other options.
Blackboard really needs to open communications. Updated product roadmaps about every part of the product and from every angle: students, faculty, support staff, and administrators for example. Also communication can’t be only at Blackboard World. Webinars with Jay and other leadership to talk about roadmaps, etc. need to be offered to institutions for attendance during various times of the year. Finally work to allow Blackboard’s legal teams to lessen the throttle of communication to institutions.
In the end, Blackboard has done a great job trying to navigate the LMS waters which have become filled with other competitors. The previews of their new Learn and Collaborate products have been well received. However the concern is that these ships still are in dry dock preparing for launch. While many feel the company’s other products, user communities, and communications are sitting out in the ocean with little navigational guidance. Hopefully this feedback and the start of Blackboard World 2015 will allow the company to launch its ships, open its sails, and get a good tailwind as we travel towards 2016 and beyond.
P.S. – I would enjoy hearing your comments about what I mentioned or what other topics you think Blackboard should address at the upcoming conference. Feel free to put your comments below. – BbG