Just over four years after Providence Equity Partners acquired Blackboard and three years after they brought in Jay Bhatt to replace co-founder Michael Chasen, the company hired Bill Ballhaus as its new CEO at the beginning of January. 100 days in, Ballhaus is starting to make changes to the organization and providing some insights into future corporate directions.
The most significant change is a reorganization that combines strategy, product management and marketing in one group under Katie Blot. In an interview Michael and I had with Ballhaus and Blot earlier this week, they described the primary motivation for the organizational change as the need to more tightly align those functions. Also significant is that this change means the departure of Mark Strassman, SVP Product Marketing & Management, and Tracey Stout, SVP of Marketing & Sales Effectiveness. Blackboard provided the following statement.
We are deeply grateful for the many contributions both Mark and Tracey have made at Blackboard. Both of these individuals have been critical to driving the transformation and evolution of our PMM and Marketing organizations.
Katie Blot joined Blackboard in 2008 as President of Global Services and has been SVP of Corporate & Industry Strategy since early 2015. Her long experience at Blackboard is worth considering as is the fact that both departing executives both worked with Jay Bhatt at Autodesk earlier in their careers and were brought into Blackboard as part of his new management team. I am not suggesting that the purpose of the move was based on corporate pedigree, but I am suggesting that the move effectively changes the balance in how much ed tech experience and even Blackboard experience rests with the top company executives.
When we asked Ballhaus about lessons learned after his listening tour with customers, he told us that the company must do a few things very well. And the top of his priority list is the Learn LMS product family. This focus on products stands in contrast to Bhatt’s broader and more vague focus on solutions. Michael noted the change in tone back in the 2013 BbWorld keynote:
The big corporate keynote had to be one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. CEO Jay Bhatt ran through a whole long list of accomplishments for the year, but he only gave each one a few seconds as he rattled through the checklist. He mentioned that the company has a new mission statement but didn’t bother to explain it. It took nearly an hour of mostly talking about big macro trends in education and generalities about the categories of goals that the company has set before he finally got around to new product announcements. And then commenced what I can only describe as a carpet bombing run of announcements—a series of explosions that were over by the time you realized that they had started, leaving you to wonder what the heck had just happened.
At that same 2013 keynote (and in Michael’s post) Blackboard announced a major UX overhaul for Learn (the Ultra part) and a move to the cloud (the SaaS part). By the 2015 BbWorld conference Michael shared how Ultra was a year late and not yet ready for schools to test. The company has tripped over itself in not getting product out the door and not being able to create effective messaging. Just what is Learn Ultra and Learn SaaS and when will real colleges and universities get to evaluate them?
When we asked when Learn Ultra would be available for schools to actively pilot (real courses, real students, with major integrations to student rosters, etc), it was interesting to hear both Ballhaus and Blot take a very different approach and give what appears to be much more conservative estimates. Learn Ultra should be available for limited-functionality pilots for specific faculty (e.g. for courses not using the LMS heavily) by Fall 2016 and more broadly for institutions in Spring 2017, leading to general availability in Summer or Fall 2017.
It is encouraging that Blackboard appears to be increasing its focus on getting the core LMS product updates, and we have also noticed a tighter message about Ultra over the past two months. There is now a Learn Ultra preview for educators, where people can sign up and play around with courses both in Original View (what you know as Learn 9.1) and Ultra View (the new UX). Part of the purpose of this preview is to enable customers to get a better feel of Learn SaaS and also to help them determine whether a Fall 2016 or a Spring 2017 Learn Ultra pilot makes sense for them.
We will bring you more analysis of the Learn Ultra preview and of the broader analysis of the organizational changes at Blackboard in future posts. Stay tuned, and you can also sign up for more information on our upcoming e-Literate LMS subscription service.
"2016 is going to be an eventful year for the LMS" ® by @mfeldstein67
— Phil Hill (@PhilOnEdTech) February 19, 2016