Kuali Questions Continue at Educause

It’s been a little over a month since the Kuali Foundation announced the formation of a for-profit Kuali entity. My reflection upon all the conversation flying about regarding the new Kuali commercial company was renewed this past week during Educause 2014.   Educause is the premier higher education technology conference held every fall and conversations during this event have just got me to thinking.

Prior to living and working in Wyoming I lived in Oklahoma for more than a decade.  Living in Oklahoma for such a long time gives you a chance on occasion to encounter a tornado.  People were always commenting on how they couldn’t live there as tornados would terrify them.  My response was always,  

When it’s storming you just sleep with your shoes by the bed.  

The general meaning is that one should be ready no matter what happens.  Because we have made a small deployment of Kuali Coeus for our grants office we were set to participate further with the community and write a check to allow my institution to become a member of the foundation. With recent changes I am not sure which path we will take, but I want to be ready…no matter what happens.  Let’s start today’s conversation with an oft-stated tenet of community source and thus the Kauli World

If you bring the gold then you make the rules.

I guess I had drunk the Kool-Aid about “those who bring the gold make the rules” in spite of the fact that I never really believed that this community could call itself open source.  Inviting, cordial, brilliant and dedicated….but I mean who ever heard of an open source community you had to pay to be a part of.

At any rate, I lived happily in Tornado Alley literally and in a professional sense for a small rural broke institution for the better part of my professional life.  Professionally as budgetary storms came and went I stuck my toe in open source waters almost a decade ago. My observation in general about open source is that works and it is a game changer if an institution is willing to commit to that path when it makes sense.

After some real success with open technology I essentially jumped all in, Moodle for LMS, The Digium distribution of Asterisk for phones, Linux here and there.  I even had the privilege of building and piloting an introductory computer course in which we used Open Office as the primary software tool and gave away a free open textbook. What a glorious delight it was to give the book away.  I am so pleased to see many OER projects working to keep student costs down.  I don’t recall regretting any of those decisions. Planning, communication, hard work, professional networking and a little luck have all been key in making sure those decisions worked out.

After years of observation, I recently stuck my toe in the Kuali water and had begun to think about ways to jump all the way to improve on the nightmare that is commercial ERP software.  A conversion of administrative software in my estimation is the most difficult conversion of all if you can even get past institutional or consortial politics if you are dealing with multiple institutions.

I have stated reasons for this line of thinking before but will enumerate those again below:

  1.    The overall ERP marketplace for higher education is BROKEN
  2.    Everyone* hates their ERP except the Kuali people…at least for now
  3.    Kuali is the only interesting thing to happen in higher ed ERP in years.
  4.    Licensing costs are out of control.
  5.    IT is in a better position to save money for institutions of Higher Ed than any other organizational area in higher ed (This post shows where I stole this thought:  http://bit.ly/1hGmCdY)

With all that said, back to Kuali.  The plethora of blogs, articles, social media comments and most recently reported interaction at the 2014 Educause conference show a gap between what the Kuali Board and Foundation have communicated and what people perceive to be happening.  Yes ladies and gentlemen  I believe we have a Kuali Communications Chasm.

Kuali has spent its entire existence denouncing the methods and motives of commercial administrative software and there is much discussion about the community meetings this summer.    Even if the summer meetings were the birthplace of all these changes  it is hard to believe that more communication was not done in preparation for such a drastic departure from the community mantra which essentially has been “commercial software is evil” This has been touted from day one of the announcement of the Kuali Commercial Software in 2004  If you go back and review the various versions of Kuali 101 available on Youtube this is obvious.

As so aptly pointed out by Phil Hill in his post of August 25, 2014, it is hard to accept Kuali’s position that formation of Kuali.co was based upon the two Kuali community meetings in June and July.   So why is the broader community and those wishing to become part of the broader community so inquisitive?   I would tend to suggest it has a lot to do with the direction the funding many of Kuali community partners have provided,  the radical and rushed departure from what has been meandering communication from the board.   

Pat Burns who is CIO at Colorado State is a wonderfully likable fellow who has more than once generously offered to host a Wyoming contingent to demonstrate their amazing success in deploying Kuali tools.  He wrote a post kuali.org last week: “The Fifth ‘S’ – Strategy” where he states

“Now is the time to form the best KualiCo we can, hire the best person to lead that company that we can, trust them to work out the details, and GO!”

A total transformation of a community effort without an extensive communication plan and business plan is not a strategy.  As thorough as the planning, documentation and record keeping were for the .org  it seems out of character to jump into this other venture without some significant planning and at least the appearance of a business plan.

Listening to various conversations it seems the plan is in the works but the multitude of conversations it certainly not settled.  As the new Kauli.co CEO Joel Dehlin indicated during the Educasue CIO session.  The commercial entity is not even a legal entity yet because of a few technical details.

As big a fan as I have been of Kuali  I am not surprised that many are skeptical about such an intelligent and inventive group not understanding that a comprehensive business plan and “patient communication” would be required to keep the community intact during such an extraordinary about-face in the overall philosophy of the project.   

The question of the initial source of reserves to be used as funding for Kualico is addressed as Brad clearly states that “The Foundation will provide initial capital investment for the company out of its reserves.”  Clear enough.  That is, until you ask what is the revenue source for the Foundation’s reserves?  Is it not the financial contributions of the Kuali members, namely the partner colleges and universities?  Current reserves come from the membership dues paid.  Such financial contributions entitle the universities to exercise influence over the Kuali’s organization and products. If those who paid the gold to make the rules didn’t really get to make the rules then why would anyone in the future trust that their investment would really buy input into the project.  I don’t think my other institution would be opposed to investing if truly we would get input equity.  However, the events of the last month or so create a chasm the reality of what is happening and the perception of what is happening. If it is true perception is reality then Kuali as a community has a problem.

A statement in the exchange of comments from an October 2, 2014 Inside Higher Education article sums up the feeling of many.

“I certainly understand the need to adjust models as the market progresses. But the Kuali Foundation raised funds as a non-profit with a stated goal of building a community. Now those funds are being used to (a) fund a KualiCo and (b) “encourage” the community members to become “customers” of KualiCo. If Kuali Foundation refunded membership dues, had no equity in KualiCo and allowed KuaiCo to do all of the talking https://blog.kuali.org/week-5-… about the new enterprise then I would be completely unconcerned and very supportive. But as structured, it seems like a hasty misappropriation of non-profit funds and fiduciary conflict-of-interest for those board members who are voting to spend non-profit funds to invest in a for-profit company and then marketing that company to its own members.”

As I reviewed again Brad Wheeler’s blog post of August 22, 2014 in which he answered FAQs about the new for-profit company, there are a number of statements I still wonder about.

The term patient capital is a curious one light of the stated desire to accelerate development.  The memberships and project contributions of this community over the first 10 years of the project have always been the real patient capital.    The Kuali Community has always been all about patient capital and has been supported by patient capital.  So to say there is going to be a reliance on patient capital to support accelerated development in the commercial wing creates a bit of disjoint at best.   It might even be possible that erosion of the goodwill of the existing community and skepticism of the advantages of future memberships actually defeats the intended goal of accelerating development.  

Since Kuali.com is being established by using monies contributed by the partners, it seems reasonable the investing partners will exercise influence over the evolving organization and functional/technical priories of the .com.  I worry about this from my observation of the Ellucian Community Source Initiative. In my experience community and for-profit don’t march smoothly hand in hand Essentially what happens with the Ellucian Community Source initiative is that some Ellucian clients do work, contributed it back to the “community” for Ellucian to maintain and Ellucian then has one more tool which they can turn into billable hours for their clients…er I mean their community.  

So if I approve the writing of the check to become a member and contribute something significant is my reward ultimately having to pay to access that significant contribution from Kualico.   I do not want to write a check and not have the fundamental right influence the project.  The bigger issue here for me isn’t the money and my little pittance of a membership due would be insignificant in the whole picture.   The issue is that what I would have written a check for on July 1 is fundamentally different than what I would have gotten for that investment following the August announcement.  For more than a few of the long term big dollar investors I would think this would be a scalable problem.    

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