The Overweight Education Structure
It occurred to me recently that, in all the Learning Counsel’s talking with schools about the real issue being structure as the preeminent change to make in digital transition, we ought to be saying something to the industry side as well. Both are overweight in structure, or maybe more accurately, they exist now as misfit front-facades to an “unstructure” that is needed. (No, I’m not calling anyone overweight. Sheesh!)
What I am saying is that the rethinking of Education must be way deeper than machines-in-the- classroom or your product-as-applied-to-the-classroom. It has to be the way things are organizationally structured. Both sides, schools and companies, are not being thorough-enough strategists.
To use a battle analogy, and I am a big fan of the 6th-Century Sun Tzu who wrote “The Art of War” for all things philosophical about organizational postures to win, schools and the tech industry tend to array themselves in a hand-to-hand combat pattern. Teacher-to-student ratios is a big thing, oft-discussed but less often understood contextually from inside a high-tech reality. Numbers of certified teachers needed in “classrooms” could reduce significantly but at the same time increase exponentially in the work of personalizing, creating high-experience project-based learning, interventions to save students who are behind, and what I call “extraventions” for those ahead or bored. A quality history teacher could be leveraged across many schools, skyped in from afar, just one example of a new non-factory matrixed network model. In companies, the hand-to-hand combat posture materializes as a point of pride in the sheer number of reps and national coverage-model goals. Neither student-teacher ratios or volumes of reps should be the concentration of attention, or the structural imperative, in today’s internet reality.
Instead, a view of one’s website as the structural imperative, the façade storefront that navigates prospective students or clients into resources, services, correct subject leaders, and transactions that might have humans on the other end who could be anywhere -- is the school or the company. You are your online facilitation. Your internet presence with digital courseware and interactions is the brand and the central function – for both schools and software companies. It’s the brand for nearly every other industry, so people are becoming programmed to think this way.
Let’s talk in more detail about schools first. What’s fascinating to me is that schools still tend to think of themselves as being their collection of buildings, people, schedules, tests, mascots, and mottos. It is a viewpoint so distinctly out-of-sync with the economic reality that I can’t believe leaders are not singularly focused on complete transmigration to a new networked structure and losing sleep over it. To the savvy internet generations, the buildings and people are not the thing itself – the “thing” being the content of learning, the education. Buildings/People are merely a representation in the physical realm, a hub with customer service agents (teachers) for things that really need to be done in person. Bank and store clerks are seen this way already. Hopefully, as is the constant advice of the Learning Counsel, schools are a place of hand-on projects and face-to-face communication to bring the digital knowledge to life with extreme personalization, and so thrillingly experiential that they reduce the risk of school irrelevancy when learning can otherwise be done online. This is from the observation that Disneyland is one place immune from Amazonization. Schools could get to this nirvana through decoupling the delivery mechanism from local-human-only, and matrix in expertise from everywhere. The richness of the internet put into play, along with a deep embedding of analytic-inference engines for recommended content pathways, can change the whole structure of delivery. It won’t obviate teachers, instead it would leverage them, perhaps even across old structured lines in a shared model between schools, districts, even whole States. Imagine the potentials for new types of jobs, new freedoms for teachers and schools. It’s already happening as schools pull from their front lines of teachers to redirect those staff into floating instructional technologists to flank the teachers left on the front line in classrooms. A natural next stage is a further reduction of the front-line teaching for more back-office expertise while students do their several hours of screen learning, which can be overseen by non-certified staff. Screen learning absorbs and makes more efficient some of the knowledge distribution, but it can’t be done all day or what would be the justification for going to a physical school site? While screen learning is going on, a bustling hive of activity-creating projects and experiences can be staged. From these mild changes away from a classroom-only model, a new network-effect of narrowing expertise sorts and filters teachers into careers that may have them being part of a larger arena like freelancers, while still tethered to one institution. This is the same thing that has happened in other industries.
What about the Ed-Tech Industry? Well, the age-old model of massive numbers of troops was a response to a very large market where there were dedicated buyers. Then for the last ten years the school resources buyers have been overwhelmed with the digital transition, their attention dispersed across innumerable options. The one-to-one model of sales has been taking heavy artillery fire ever since. Reps “can’t get in” to make their sales. Companies with huge battalions go through boom and bust periods of firings and hirings, still focused on the old ways and thinking that success is just a personnel and product issue.
The reality is that most Ed-Tech companies were never very good marketers in the sense of advertising and content marketing. They were good at running large sales operations. Built in to the psyche of many company leaders is a go-to-market budget heavily weighted in people. This is despite the fact that pretty much everyone knows the rise of social media advertising has made Facebook and Google behemoths economically. Industry-specific media in Ed-Tech also reaches millions of the decision makers in schools and districts but struggles with prospective client companies in the “prove it works” mindset about advertising. Why on earth would media have to prove it? To my view, it’s just too, too obvious that educators and administrators are not only reading online content but acting on it. The proof is in Learning Counsel’s own growth to 215,000 readers in a very short couple of years, with stats showing long reading time spent on our site. Powerful District leaders show up in every city for our Discussion events. It makes sense that any media company holding the neutral ground between the buyers and sellers of Ed-Tech things getting decision makers to come out for long meeting is providing something of immense value. Context has value, promotional messages have value, leaders want this while they try to reimagine schools. Why would they want to have endless individual meetings with the thousands of reps calling on schools from more than 7,000 curriculum companies plus all the hardware, network and other Ed-Tech? The fact is, media does work.
The few over-worked marketing folks in Ed-Tech companies get held accountable for making revenue connect to marketing. This is no easy thing, especially if you believe that a “lead” must be someone either with an existing interest in your product or an approved order in hand. Being just a shopper, someone who has gravitated to an issue around which your product has a solution, is often not enough for the “must generate revenue” crowd, but it should be. Why would generating revenue be marketing’s job anyway, when the job of sales is conversion-of-interest to closed deal and continuing relationship? It would only be marketing’s job if you define marketing as sales and not marketing. Marketing promotion means to make something well known and well thought of. That’s it, that’s what it does. Unfortunately, it’s the most missing thing in Ed-Tech companies.
If you don’t believe in air cover for the sales troops, like fly-over pamphlet propagandizing that blankets the land with super positive content to open doors, a.k.a. advertising, then sales people have to be the “all” with hand-to-hand combat. They have to be the marketer drumming up interest with people who’ve never heard of the company or product, then the handler-of-objections, then the closer. They’re supposed to be “relationships creators” in a land where long-term repeatable sales are highly unlikely with all the competition and turnover in software, not to mention the defection from textbooks creating unbelievable churn in loyalty. You have to have a whole lot of sales staff to pull that off. You will need less sales people if they are swamped with so much interest being driven in by good marketing that the sales job is entirely handling objections and closing. Any salesperson without terrific volumes of marketing backing them up should be protesting loudly because their job is a whole lot harder without it. Personally, if I had to be a sales rep, I would refuse to work for a company without a hot marketing division that is hopefully twice as big as the sales department. The accountability should be total volumes of people reached, total varied campaigns, quantities of support documents for field reps to use, ads created, social media traffic and more. Marketing is about accumulating many touches to make sales more efficient. It should carry the biggest cost line-item in the go-to-market effort.
Only a leader bent on making the building of their company extremely hard work would deny good quality promotion. They might even advocate for poor quality or quantity of marketing so that they can destroy all opinions of the need for it and continue to defend the old sales-centric ways since that is what they know. I find this so remarkable in Ed-Tech companies where everyday they are advocating for change by their clients but haven’t changed some of their own fundamental constructs.
Face-to-face meetings for sales people with administrators, just like face-to-face meetings for a teacher with student, are made more relevant for all parties when a lot of data has already been transacted. A teacher who knows something about how the student has been progressing, makes quality decisions to personalize for that student. When a school administrator already knows a lot about what the purpose and features of a product are all about, they can proceed directly to price and performance issues. Who wants to grant an investigatory meeting, or even take a phone call if it lacks specific purpose?
All of 2017, the Learning Counsel talked to schools about the new value proposition in our culture being time. People want to save time. Time is our highest value now, even more than money or fancy things. It’s the why behind Amazon and Google success. Time equals quality experience, something you don’t get to have if all you do is work or rush back-and-forth to someplace, spending your life in transit, stressed. On-demand information, seeing a promotional message while in the course of viewing usual news feeds or searches on a topic. These are the new, more acceptable, entrance points.
All Ed-Tech companies are built on an idea, the idea that made their product. Ideas can permeate and bring total change. Ideas, not skirmish wars, mark the forward progress of mankind. Battle analogies notwithstanding, good ideas deserve good promotion to achieve sales. We do live in the age of instantaneous idea-distribution, so the models of making something happen through direct physical contact are mutating to follow that. We do not even fight wars anymore with all hand-to-hand combat. If you lead on the physical plane only, you are failing to lead.
Your school risks its survival if you are not leveraging your humans with a full arsenal of tech in the direction of true personalization. Your company has an overly weighty sales structure if your go-to-market is primarily human-to-human.
Be the change you want to see in the world.