In-house or Out-house

A couple of weeks ago Robin DeRosa, someone I follow on twitter, posted the following observation:

The entire thread is worth a read, and I’d encourage you to go take a look at it.  While this is similar to the question often asked with regards to self hosting (or not) things like email, the question of academic infrastructure brings a nuance that is worth exploration.

To lay a little groundwork, I’d like to talk about a concept developed by Geoffrey Moore that he describes as Core versus Context.  I first heard this idea from Adrian Sannier at an event a number of years ago, and he still has one of the best summaries of this idea I’ve seen.  This is taken from a 2006 blog post:

Moore defines Core as those activities that set an enterprise apart from its competition; leadership in Core activities directly advances the mission. For companies, this means activities that, when improved, bring about direct recognition from the marketplace. By contrast, Context activities are those that, while critical, cannot in themselves distinguish the institution from the others in its market segment. Context is critical, but not strategic. Core is what an institution must continually innovate in to achieve and maintain leadership.

It is very easy to argue that the academic side of the house is absolutely Core in a higher education context.  The way our institutions provide teaching, learning, and research opportunities definitely differential us from each other.  Given that, why would any institution outsource any part of the academic experience?  For me, there are two reasons:

  1. Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we should do a thing.
  2. While the academic enterprise is definitely Core, when it comes to academic technology much, if not all, of the infrastructure is Context.

I’m positing that academic technology infrastructure is all Context.  That it is important but provides no differentiation to an institution.  Let’s explore this by way of example, the learning platform (or learning management system if you’d rather).  If you look at the LMS market, you’ll see a group of products that, fundamentally, provide the same services.  You can create course shells, give faculty access to add stuff to them, and then add students to them so they can interact with the material, each other, and the faculty member.  Whether you host Moodle (or Blackboard or Sakai) in-house or contract with Canvas (or D2L or Schoology) to provide it “in the cloud” doesn’t matter.  Yes, each platform does some things better than the other, and yes there are some tools available on one and not another.  But the learning platform taken alone will not differentiate an institution.  It’s all Context.  What is Core is how the learning platform gets used.  It’s about how the instructional designers find interesting ways to help faculty interact with their students.  It’s about how well the faculty use the tools to get their points across to students (or even work with students to discover and understand the points).  That’s the differentiator.  That’s the Core.  This same logic applies equally to just about any academic technology tool.  The tool doesn’t differentiate, how the tool is used does.  The tool is Context, the use is Core.

I do want to acknowledge one place where the technology could be considered Core – institutions that have differentiated themselves by creating the “next generation” of tools.  For that small subset of institutions, the technology is the differentiator, and it probably should (and needs to be) hosted in-house.  But even at those institutions, as tools move from experimental to commodity they also shift from Core to Context and should be treated accordingly.

There is an argument that we should host all academic technology infrastructure in house (preferably with open source software) so that we can “control our own destiny.” While I understand the sentiment and certainly echo that desire, the reality is that self-hosting open source software doesn’t let you control your own destiny.  For most institutions (especially small schools) open source software is just like vended software.  It’s developed by a group of people who may only somewhat understand your needs, that you can’t really customize without substantial expense, and may stop being updated in any meaningful way without much notice.  It’s only at the very largest, most lavishly resourced institutions that open source means real freedom.

Most institutions in the US are either small, resource constrained, or both.  For those institutions, strategic investment of resources is an important consideration.  If you have limited funding available, you want to spend as little as you can on Context and focus on the Core.  Someone in the twitter thread felt the decision to outsource could be considered a financial one.  For most institutions, it absolutely is.  Money you spend on one thing is not available to spend on another.  An outside learning platform that provides support to IT staff and end users alike at a lower cost than you could manage internally lets you spend your resources on working with the people who will make a difference.  It lets you have instructional designers who work with faculty instead of sys admins who work with machines.  If you’re at an institution with few resource constraints, you could have a team of internal IT folks install, configure, maintain and provide 7×24 support for a learning platform.  But it point #1 above, just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should.  If you really have few resource constraints, then you should spend even more on Core and even less on Context.  You should help the institution differentiate itself even more, not duplicate what already exists.

In the end, there is no right answer to the question of what you should do in-house and what you should get from the outside.  It’s a continuum in which each institution must finds it’s “right” place.  The institutions that do the best job finding that place are the ones that will differentiate themselves and be in a position to make the most impact on their students, their community, and society.  So, you know, no pressure.

Outhouse with sign that reads Danger: Flammable. Keep Flames and Heat Away.

 photo by D Anderson 2010 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license.

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