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.