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The Potato Made Me Do It

I'm currently reading a book called the The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. You might recognize The Omnivore's Dilemma as his most recent book. One very interesting aspect of The Botany of Desire is that Pollan frees the reader from preconceived notions about the importance of people in the co-evolutionary relationship between humans and plants. He frees us by providing a completely inverted perspective. He writes from the perspective of the plant. Pollan points out that, from the human gardener's perspective, she chose to plant the potato. From the potato's perspective, however, it induced her to spread its genes by playing on her desires for nutrition, taste, and other important selection criteria. In other words, the potato was the principal actor: The potato made her do it.

The enterprise software ecosystem in education is an interesting place to view through a similarly inverted lens. Typically, of course, we see extraordinary spending, implementation overruns, and rising license and maintenance costs of enterprise software -- and we blame the vendor for these characteristics. This view assumes the vendor is the subject, and that it chose to select those characteristics. (The vendor chose to acquire its competitors and reduce choice; the vendor chose to spend more money on sales and marketing than on the software it's selling.) We draw these conclusions because we consider the vendor to be the principal actor.

Now let's invert the lens. Let's look at the institution's role as buyer and see how the buyer's actions shape the "choices" made by vendors. Take the reliance on complex RFPs as an example. Looking through an inverted lens, we might see that lengthy, complex RFPs automatically select some of the characteristics found in proprietary software organizations -- large sales staffs and response teams. We might also see that buyers' expectations of vendors at the industry's conferences select characteristics such as extravagant receptions and other events that increase marketing spending and add to the sales price of software and services. In addition, we might perceive that the general tendency of relying heavily on the software company throughout the evaluation cycle further rewards heavy spending in sales and marketing. The characteristics that are rewarded are selected, and so evolution does its job and creates the software organization with the most rewarded -- but not necessarily the most desirable -- characteristics.

These days, there's an interesting ecological shift underway that's changing both the available choices and the selected characteristics. Leading institutions, together with a new breed of software company, are developing open source software in communities like Sakai and Kuali. In contrast to the proprietary software that dominated the past, open source software gives institutions new choices. Open source software is freely available to anyone, so institutions can choose when and how to evaluate it. They can also choose to modify or extend it and share the improvements they make with others. These choices result in new characteristics including lower prices, transparency, features designed by and for education, and unprecedented access to software for evaluation purposes. As institutions reward these characteristics, today and in the future, they will be selected, and as they are selected they will be replicated in the DNA of software companies in the future.

To some extent, these characteristics are already being rewarded. Rather than relying solely on responses to RFPs, institutions are now downloading open source applications and spending time with them unsupervised by a vendor. This direct access to software enables potential buyers to assess the fit of a particular application much more thoroughly than they can when relying solely on vendor input. Quite simply, the software itself is a much richer source of information about features, functions, and usability. Consequently, institutions and even governments intentionally select characteristics to be replicated.

Having the software open and accessible for inspection and evaluation leads to another change: It increases the focus on service, reliability, and responsiveness. Institutions can hold vendors accountable for these characteristics because the vendor cannot lock in buyers based on software as proprietary intellectual property.

Just as the potato and the gardener play co-evolutionary roles in the garden, all of us -- software and service companies, users, and communities -- play co-evolutionary roles in the enterprise software ecosystem in education. Evolution results from an infinite number of events and choices. It doesn't depend on the consciousness or awareness of those choices. With these natural laws in mind, higher education institutions and other education-focused organizations should think purposefully about the characteristics they reward. The characteristics they reward will be the characteristics selected and replicated in the DNA of software companies.

About the Author

Christopher D. Coppola is president of the rSmart Group, a provider of open source solutions for education. He is a board member of the Sakai and Kuali foundations.

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