Too much of a good thing

The excellent Schools Week has recently started running a series looking at the use of technology in schools. I bit my tongue when I read the first one – http://schoolsweek.co.uk/how-computing-won-the-day/ – I really was rather too busy to write anything.

But them this came along – http://schoolsweek.co.uk/coping-with-the-demands-of-data/#comment-81376 – and having a small morsel of time on my hands, here goes.

“Schools can, of course, move to other MIS providers who are chomping at the bit to take some of SIMS’ market share – but most are reluctant to move away from products they know well. This stickiness has meant competitors have struggled to break into the market with brand new solutions.”

But it’s not really as simple as that.

In the UK a monopoly is generally defined as occurring when one company controls more than 25% of a market. At last count Capita SIMS had a market share of 83% (http://bringmoredata.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/mis-market-moves-sims-still-dominate.html).

 

This is not a new phenomena. This has been the position for many years.

It is well understood that monopolies have a chilling effect on innovation. They conduct less, not more, research than non-monopolistic providers, they use their market power and often their political influence to suppress innovation by other providers and where new companies do develop innovative technologies the monopoly will often then swallow them up and present them as their own, thus feeding the myth of the benign monopoly.

The Capita SIMS monopoly arose not because it was the best system on the market, but because it was the only system on the market and was purchased wholesale by Local Authorities, not directly by schools. And at this point the usual inertia took hold. And as BECTa reported in its very carefully worded 2010 report (http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/15716/1/school%20management%20information%20systems%20and%20value%20for%20money%202010.pdf) this arrangement did not always lead to the best VFM nor was it always in compliance with the law.

Capita SIMS does not only deal with core school MIS needs. It has expanded its software offering into many areas of the school. For me this is problematic. This prevents innovation. Because of its ubiquity any potential provider of technology solutions to schools has to become a technical partner with Capita SIMS. The very organisation they would be intending to compete with. And this will almost always be an unfair bargaining position, with SIMS completely dominant. Simply put, in order to try and compete in the schools software market a company has to pay Capita SIMS (http://www.capita-sims.co.uk/files/sims/downloads/partner_management_document_jul15.pdf). And not small amounts of money, either. In this sense they are acting as the gatekeeper to their own monopoly.

The reason competitors haven’t broken into the market isn’t because of a great love of the existing systems. The “stickiness” isn’t because schools don’t want something different or better (you only have to speak to a random selection of schools to understand that they do). It’s because the “market” in school MIS systems hasn’t allowed those better systems to be created. There was a time when the DfE intended to overhaul this market (https://www.tes.com/article.aspx?storycode=6087636) but its actions appear only to have embedded an existing and long standing status quo.

Perhaps it is time they had another look.

 

[The bulk of this post has also been left as comment on the article in question]
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