One of New Brunswick’s only learning technology development companies is in the process of being sold. Not sure if this is good or bad for the local industry. Ensemble Collaboration started up a few years ago and developed a collaboration platform for learning. The website is currently down, pending the sale.
I came to this province in 1995 and really became part of the industry in 1998. Since then we have had a few technology companies come and go. These are some of the ghosts of LMS past – Crescent Studio, IP Global, e-com and BKM. Today, the largest companies in the sector provide custom content development â€“ Vitesse, PulseLearning and Innovatia. I think that there is a more sustainable business model on the services side of the industry, however I see these companies competing in a marketplace that is starting to view their services as commodities. I see more learning content companies competing by offering the lowest price per courseware development hour, or whatever other measure you wish to use. Because of this market tendency, companies need to grow their higher-end services in order to stay competitive. These are not evident in New Brunswick at this time.
As someone who has worked with many of the companies, academic institutions and government departments in the province, I’ll give my prognosis for this industry. First of all, there are only 740,000 people in New Brunswick and due to our size we will never grow any industry that is sustainable on its own. We definitely cannot do this without serious partnering or strategic alliances. However, we can capitalise on our small size by encouraging start-ups and sowing many seeds that will grow and survive, or even wither and die. It is through the act of creating new companies that we will improve our ability to create more. We need to develop a way to fail early and fail often. Failure in new business cannot be generally viewed as failure in business. Few entrepreneurs succeed on their first attempt. This Province has the resources, and connections, to create an environment that is friendly for start-ups, especially those that don’t require huge sums of money (e.g. Flickr before it sold to Yahoo).
This flies in the face of efforts to attract larger companies that can offer more jobs to local people. I believe that using the “job” as an economic indicator is a crucial flaw in our economic development policy. Instead, we should be helping to create many small, innovative companies. This will foster a more diverse economic foundation, where one failure will not bring down the entire industry. We have some learning expertise and we used to have some technology development capabilities. What we need now is a way to allow a thousand flowers to blossom. Some of these start-ups may even get purchased by larger corporations and move away, but their creation will be our secret sauce. I am suggesting moving from an indentured servitude model (the salaried employee) to an entrepreneurial model. This has its risks but it puts the means of production into the hands of more people (sounds socialist, doesn’t it?).
To enable this entrepreneurial renewal, without the need for huge amounts of venture capital, we must leverage open source software. Individuals and companies must get involved in the global communities created by open source. That is why I am concerned about the lack of technology companies. A viable learning industry also needs to be in control of its enabling technologies.
As I said, our advantage is our size. It’s easy to contact someone in government here. For instance, the Province has a unique regulation for the creation of online universities. To be a fertile ground for innovation, we need more of this type of unique legislation; not more subsidies or government sponsored trade missions.
So here are some concrete recommendations for my colleagues in this industry. First, get involved in the global community. Personally, I champion Elgg Learning Landscape, Moodle and ATutor. I am involved with the Education Bridges project, initiated by Dave Cormier on PEI. Through blogging, I am also speaking with others around the world. This can yield some interesting connections. For example, Indian companies may be looking for partnerships or involvement in other communities, as mentioned recently on the Learned Man blog. I would be keen to see a webcast of our LearnNB activities done in cooperation with some Indian companies. I’m sure that we have much to learn from each other.
Basically, we can’t focus on this Province alone and we need to use our small size to our advantage. If we stay small, we remain nimble. In a flat world, that may be the right prescription.