The Axe Man Cometh Preview #higheredlive

On Sunday, November 14 at 7:00 PM (eastern) I will be appearing on Higher Ed Live with Seth Odell.  The title of this episode is “When the Axe Man Cometh” and is based on a series of blog posts and speeches I have given over the last four years on “Higher Ed Web Development Gets Flattened, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New World Order”.  By flattened I mean when the impact of the internet and globalization render an industry unrecognizable, and in many cases obsolete. For example, this has happened to the music industry and the newspaper industry, and yes, I think it will happen to higher education as well.

Let me share with you the genesis of my thoughts on this topic. In spring 2006, I was reading “The World is Flat” by Tom Friedman and I was stopped dead in my tracks when Friedman specifically mentioned how web programming would become a commodity and was a likely profession to get flattened.  A short time later I was reading Dan Pink’s “A Whole New Mind” where he said that everyone needs to ask themselves three questions:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Am I offering something in demand in the age of abundance?

IMHO – the answers to questions one and two for higher education web professionals are yes.

Many people have been predicting that higher education as we know it today does not have a future. The quote  I frequently use in my presentations is from Peter Drucker who has been called the greatest management thinker of the past century. In 1997 he said:

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. … Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable.

So my basic hypothesis is as follows:  In the flattened world, organizations are putting themselves under the microscope, examining every department and function to determine if it a cost or a source of income. Is it a core competency, or something that anyone could do – possibly cheaper and better. Soon higher ed will follow a similar path and break down their services to the component level to determine the value-added for each function. Anything not directly related to higher education’s core competency, the actual teaching and research, can potentially be outsourced, web development included.

Another must-read book on this topic is  A University for the 21st Century. The author is James Duderstadt, President Emeritus at the University of Michigan. I was particularly interested in the last two chapters where he talked about higher education becoming “unbundled”. Here are some quotes from the book:

  • Higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Universities will have to come to terms with what their true strengths are and how those strengths support their strategies – and then be willing to outsource needed capabilities in areas where they do not have a unique advantage.
  • Universities are under increasing pressure to spin off or sell or close down parts of their traditional operations in the face of new competition. They may well find it necessary to unbundle their many functions, ranging from admissions to counseling to instruction and certification.

Fast forward to the summer of 2010 and a very compelling blog post from Brian Kelly called “When the Axe Man Cometh – The Future of Institutional Web Teams” . This is a great analysis of where high ed web teams may be going (and the source of the title of this blog post). A very telling comment on this post from a former student of mine who is the CIO at a large international company stated – “The reality is that a guy like me can come in and do the job of your team for at least 40% less offshore – with equal quality”. I have not doubt that this is true and given the economic challenges facing higher ed, this will become a viable approach for many.

I would love to know your thoughts on the future of our profession.  Questions I have include:

  • What will our jobs look like 5 years from now? 10 years from now?
  • How do you disaggregate the functions of the web team?
  • What functions are most likely to be outsourced?
  • Have you ever outsourced work? to a free agent? overseas?

I hope you can join us on November 14th for this important discussion.



  1. Mark-
    I think you’re definitely on to something here. I agree that in 5-10 years higher education will look different, but what about 50-100 years? If anything, I see the future changes as just another part of a long cycle.

    Traditional institutions of higher education have become a bloated mess, trying to provide everything to everyone. You’re correct in that higher education is an industry ripe for the unbundling of activities. Institutions, in my opinion, will continue to spin off or sell or close down in the face of new competition to compete for students.

    But this trend cannot last forever. There will come a time when specialized institutions cannot provide the scale and scope of traditional universities and someone will come along, cobble programs together, and offer a richer experience. How long that will take, I have no idea.

  2. The future of education is surely linked in some way to the economics of the world. And that is going to change dramatically in the future. It has already begun with the change of power from North to South hemispheres.

    By the way, Drucker is definitely a thinker to follow…

    Kind regards,


  3. Regarding higher education in general, I do believe it is ripe for the felling. So much knowledge is already made available on the Internet—even mentors can be found in the person of blog authors—that the time is coming, if it is not already here, that universities can offer almost nothing but a piece of paper to prove that you’ve been taught something.

    Unfortunately, that piece of paper can’t even prove that you’ve learned something. I know this all too well from working with writers who supposedly have master’s degrees in English but whose articles are no better, if not worse, than an engineering undergrad’s. (Oh yes, she really was an English major. And he really was an engineering undergrad. And he really did write better. And math people are supposed to be bad with words!)

    So much for higher education.

  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece. Scary stuff from a knowledge worker perspective, frankly.

    Two small errors — there’s a typo in the title (“commeth”), and you misattribute “The World Is Flat” to Tom Peters instead of Thomas Friedman.

    • Thanks Paul. Errors have been corrected 🙂

  5. Reading this after reading through the ‘governance’ conversation again this morning …

    One thing I would caution on is any easy surrender on the “equal quality” assertion re. outsourcing. Agreed, that it would be be no big accomplishment to achieve “equal quality” if the web development activities were ‘unbundled’ from the teaching and research activities and re-aggregated within a single focused workgroup. I think we already can see how that could work at major universities, because it’s been a fairly typical way of approaching the web at small colleges.

    I think, though, that the university website in this era is becoming, or should become, a true analogue to the physical campus. Mark, in your comments re. governance, you assert that the university website is more than marketing/communications. I would amplify that; in order to make it all it can be, we need to be able to bring relevant data to key touchpoints, which means breaking the siloed data models of the proprietary systems (Peoplesoft, Blackboard, SAP, etc.) IF web services from all of those enterprise systems becomes available to the web team, then I think we can add tremendous value as a truly strategic asset to the universities we serve.


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