Technology Research

Blackboard: A Case Study for Adaptability

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Many higher education publications continue to highlight the challenges Blackboard faces in the learning management systems (LMS) market, such as the company’s decrease in market share, issues with its cloud strategy, and efforts to improve its client experience. What much of this coverage overlooks, however, is the question of why a once-innovative company like Blackboard is facing the challenges that it does.

In our view, in trying to respond to a changing market and new competition, Blackboard has looked to the holy grail of innovation—creating or acquiring a new product or service. The difficulty with this approach is that it seeks to change the game instead of respond to shifts in the game itself. Blackboard's true challenge is not the search for innovation but a struggle to achieve adaptability.

Since Blackboard’s inception in 1998, three significant shifts have occurred in the LMS market:

  • Desired features: When Blackboard was founded in 1998, the LMS focused on the storage and management of learning content. Over time, users have demanded more features, such as assessments, messaging, content creation, mobile/tablet access, and video, which may be in tension with the original notion and design of the Blackboard LMS.
  • Core users: The LMS has historically been more instructor-focused than student-focused. While the student could use the content within the LMS, control belonged to the instructor. Blackboard is under pressure from competitors asserting more student-friendly alternatives to change its design and place the student at the heart of the solution, for example, by allowing them to add and manage learner-generated content and activities.
  • Integration: Historically, an LMS was a standalone solution but today must integrate with all manner of other institutional systems and tools. Pressure has increased for the LMS to be a more open environment in terms of code customization, another feature some of Blackboard’s competitors have touted. LMS providers, such as Blackboard, have embraced third party technology standards.

Blackboard’s Response

In our recent conversations with Blackboard, we saw some encouraging signs that it is taking steps toward adapting to these changes:

  • New features: Some notable recent Blackboard announcements include the Learning Core solution that affords institutions more scope to develop personalized learning, the Mobile Learning Solutions, and the Open Innovation Initiative that offers developers more flexibility to fashion integrations.
  • Listening and Product Development: In meetings with the executive team, we heard Blackboard discuss changing its entire product development strategy to become more responsive and nimble. The focus is on redesigning company processes—and even culture—to ensure that customer feedback and market changes are received, understood, evaluated, and acted on.
  • Focus on services: To better detect market needs and shifts, Blackboard’s new approach is to transcend a feature-level view of the LMS to one that pinpoints how it supports teaching, learning, and student outcomes.

Key Takeaway

The LMS is here to stay. Some means to organize the administration of teaching and learning, to provide a platform for instructional resources, and monitor results is not a transitory need. Blackboard’s competitors, as more recent market entrants, have used the incumbent as a point of departure, painting it as slow and outmoded. The line between innovation and adaptability has become blurred.

Of course, responding to market shifts is not unique to Blackboard. It is something that all organizations—technology companies, higher education institutions, etc.—have to manage. What has made Blackboard’s situation unusual is exceptional market share—well over 50% at its peak, and now down to about one third—creating a climate of heightened visibility and pressure to try to be all things to all institutions.

The key takeaway from its situation—one that the company now seem to have accepted—is that you cannot always innovate your way out of market struggles. Instead, it requires that you have your finger on the pulse of the market and have a set of organizational processes to act on customer signals, big and small. To use baseball as an analogy, seeking to be successful via innovation would be like looking to win the game just by hitting home runs, instead of by playing "small ball," i.e., adapting to changes in the game, such as adjusting to the pitch count, baserunners, etc.

Time will tell whether Blackboard succeeds in overcoming its challenges, but it is making a giant step by re-thinking the problem and solution.

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