Banking

A vendor acquisition creates a conundrum

Scott Lowe looks at a recent software acquisition that is causing widespread dismay in many colleges and universities. How do you prepare for change when a trusted vendor is bought by a "big bad" organization?

Yesterday, the President of Westminster College e-mailed me a simple question: "What is Sakai?" As many of you know, Sakai is an open source course management system. Course management systems in higher education are used to supplement (and sometimes replace) in-classroom learning and to enable more student interaction outside the classroom. My reply to my President answered his question, and I added also that I doubted that we'd be looking at Sakai anytime soon. Why? The general consensus of the faculty seemed to indicate that our current course management system - Angel - was meeting needs just fine.

I typed the response and hit the Send button.

Then, I clicked on the next message in my inbox. Literally the next message.

The gist of the message: Angel Learning, the creator of the aforementioned course management system, had just announced to their client base that their company had been sold to Blackboard, often referred to by colleges as Blackborg due to their history of buying and assimilating competing products. Unlike the other company often accused of Borgifying the competition, however, Blackboard's history of success in integrating purchase products isn't exactly stellar; in fact, to many people who have been on the wrong end of these acquisitions, there is a great deal of bitterness toward Blackboard. Many of these people felt that they had found a safe haven in Angel. But, as they say, money talks and the $95 million paycheck that Angel management received isn't exactly chump change.

Now, I've seen mergers and acquisitions take place before, but never before have I seen such immediate, quick and universal condemnation of a business decision. I've spent much of the past 24 hours reading listserv messages, blog postings and story comments. To say that users are angry would be a massive understatement.

To Angel's credit, they have kept their company-operated user listserv alive and operating and do not appear to be censoring any messages. How do I know? If they were censoring or moderation mail, there is not one message that would have made the cut today. Here is a sample of some of the comments regarding this merger:

  • "Is this a joke?"
  • "I guess money talks and BS walks. I hope Angel realizes that a lot of the reason they got so much money and market share so fast is because people wanted to get the hell away from Blackboard in the first place! Not pleased in the least..."
  • "Just sick to my stomach. The coming year will be spent on developing an escape plan."
  • "I thought they were different!! I feel betrayed!!!!!"
  • "I know some folks who just switched to Angel because they were sick of Blackboard's high fees or because WebCT was slowly going away after they were bought out by Blackboard. Uh, go Moodle, I guess."
  • "9.I cannot believe this is happening. We went to ANGEL over 5 years ago when the company was small. Many other colleges in Florida followed with St. Petersburg College's lead. Never in my life did I think that ANGEL Learning Execs would sell out to such a crappy company like BB. I really do not believe that BB will combine the great features into its product."

At Westminster, we had a plan for the summer to upgrade our Angel system to the latest version. We'll probably still do that, but this uncertainty also provides us with an opportunity that might not have otherwise come along. We can take a hard look at the market without feeling any loyalty to the incumbent provider who, honestly, has been good to work with. Many colleges that use the Angel system are in a worse situation in that they're under multi-year contracts with Angel and are now running a system with a very uncertain future.

So, we have a conundrum. Replacing a course management system isn't exactly a trivial affair. So, we'll continue to watch this develop and will probably deploy the open source Moodle course management system side-by-side with Angel this fall. That will give our faculty and students some time to consider and provide feedback regarding both systems simultaneously. Moreover, in the event that Angel/Blackboard support becomes unusable or license pricing goes through the roof (both happened when Blackboard acquired WebCT a while back), we'll at least have the option to cut the Angel cord without a huge impact.

This wasn't on the to-do list, but a course management system is critical infrastructure in a college environment!

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

4 comments
adrian.kearns
adrian.kearns

Whilst I sympathize with your position, this article is not about "How do you prepare for change when a trusted vendor is bought by a ?big bad? organization". This article simply tells us you have a conundrum, and gives us some detail. At no point have you actually discussed things that could be done to prepare for change. Preparation might include: * Having done some architectural work and planning in advance (such as TOGAF): identifying critical business applications and how they support the business, where do they fit in the current landscape for that kind of product? Anyone doing any "what-if" thinking? * You could also take a look at some of the Agile principles and values and try evaluating yourself aganist them.

biancaluna
biancaluna

I agree with Adrian. I have worked with universities, and have seen many of these conundrums. They come back to prudent exit strategies and not painting oneself in a corner. The what if thinking should include all types of scenarios, desired or undesired. Many universities are in the same boat, isn't it about time to look at shared services to increase agility and decrease the reliance on expensive, non performing hostage based legacy applications? I see this form of corner painting in many shapes and forms, unfortunately, the majority of universities do not see themselves as a business, and that means that sound business principles such as enterprise architectures and agility in decision making are not in situ. Future proofing is an important factor in IT decisions whether they be indentity management, desktop software or enterprise applications.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

There is no reason to use WebCT (BB killed what was a superior product), Angel is now going to die like WebCT...a long slow painful death of creeping crud. Time to really push Moodle or something like (god forbid) learn.com.

smallworld
smallworld

Hello, There are many industrial-strength solutions developed by some of the large public institutions. These solutions are currently not open-sourced, but its just a matter of asking, and someone taking a leadership! For example, our company is currently at the tail-end of development life cycle of a complex web-based Course Curriculum Management System. This system is developed for the 5th largest higher education system in the US, serving 400,000 students across 34 institutions and 60 campuses. System is designed to be a multi-tenant hosting system and has very powerful, AJAX/RIA-based user interfaces that provides an open architecture, desktop-style productivity but runs on a browser. Since this system has been developed for a public organization, I assume that it will be available to most other public/private domain institutions just for asking. We will be happy to help facilitate communications for any interested parties. Thanks. Ketan http://www.thesmallworld.com