Setting the Tone

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.

- Theodore Roosevelt

Friday, July 05, 2013

U-Aspire: Approaching A Pivot

Six months into the new venture, it is time for stock taking. It has been exciting, but extremely demanding, journey, testing my assumptions and giving me a taste of street-level entrepreneurship. Despite the personal costs and sacrifices, this is intoxicating: The freedom, the ability to create new stuff and the sheer joy of watching something grow. Indeed, there were disappointments, many of them. Our idea was perhaps too ambitious, too complex for many investors, particularly in the UK, who has a limited view of the education business, and a particularly constricted one for the emerging market opportunities. What we wanted to do is disruptive, but not disruptive the way those who love status quo want: It was not about using technology to deliver standardised education, it was not about collecting learner data and create models of learning to create further standardised education. It remains quite the opposite: It is about opening the box of competence-based education and creating a global-local version of the same, with technology playing an enabling role of connecting people.

Given that my background is in Adult Learning and Teaching, and I spent most of my last four years, deliberately and consciously, teaching students and studying adult learning formally, this appears normal to me: That a technology-led disruption coming to education, but this is NOT about technology standardising education, BUT enabling its variety and complexity. However, this is antithetical: The private investors in education is still beholden to the factory model of education and to its traditional drivers, a combination of 'bums' and 'seats', rather than peoples' brains and communities. I am indeed pursuing a model of an education enterprise which is built as a network, where students contribute with their individuality and knowledge. In my conception, the industrial system of education is passe; I am trying to conceptualise a system of connections, conversations and co-creation. For me, this is common sense, and also relatively easy to do if we could bring together a network of committed partners in building it. But this is too much of an educator's game, rather than the engineering feat which institutional investors have come to love.

We set out to create a 'Lean' proposition, again a concept borrowed from software, rather than education, businesses. Not that we had any other option as we were bootstrapping, but the idea was to create some products (but keep them in permanent beta) and test them in the market. We did: Some of the courses we created are based on established learning programmes, and some we created for a specific segment of the market, the globally mobile aspiring students and professionals, primarily in emerging markets but not exclusively so. We engaged with different sorts of partners across three different markets, India and China primarily, but also one of the 'Next 11' markets in Bangladesh: We got a clear sense on what will work and what may not. Our plans pivoted considerably, primarily through these interactions: We realised that our primary aim should be to create a dedicated partner chain rather than trying to spread ourselves far and wide with many institutions, who may be happy to sign up for a partnership, but making sure that they offer the students the learning experience we wish to create will be a mammoth task for us. We decided to focus on developing a few key partners in key markets, as well as establish a presence in Europe, to offer Global Management training.

What we learnt about our products is exciting though: That they are rather unique in the market, and customers and partners love them. We built a series of interrelated management programmes, and they got immediate traction as we started talking about them. We had colleges making a short programme a compulsory part of their undergraduate offering: We also have a growing franchise of 'Global Business Professional', a course we created and got quality assured through a much respected Management Association, something we believe will become our flagship course and a complete franchise of its own, as and when we are able to put the required investment behind the same. 

Another interesting learning we have had is to abandon the 'Academic' tag for our programmes. We realised that this term has different connotations in the students' minds, and we are, by the very nature of the proposition, not conforming to those expectations. Therefore, rather than getting tagged 'Distance Learning', which may not attract the kind of learners we want and we may soon end up being in degree merchandising, we decided to redefine our programmes as 'Professional' programmes, which they are. There are deeper insights here than just which tag will work: 'Academic' seems to tied to status quo, a system of preserving social privileges in many societies, beholden to prestige, heritage and selectivity; 'professional', on the other hand, is more easily associated with social mobility and aspiration, 'disruption' in the sense of rebalancing of privileges and often quite new and unheard of in some of the emerging markets.  

Indeed, making our programme 'Professional' means closely defining a profession and starting to establish a community and standards: This is what we do next. We have got the basic framework in place for a range of 'Global Professional' programmes; we will now work on the support structure, dedicated outlets, distributed communities and employer recognition and involvement. Our 'Canvass' has evolved fast and if the investors really caught up on 'innovation accounting', we have quite a rich treasure trove already, with some great products and market insights. However, education investing may not be there yet, evolving as it is from public sector practices (which is about buying out undervalued and mismanaged public assets and making money in the arbitrage) rather than from software (which is seen as fast growth and highly disruptive, in a way education may not be). Our next challenge is to deal with this investor mindset, and demonstrate how the management principles of a good software business can work in the education context, and without giving in to the 'technology eating the world' paradigm, still build a valuable, scalable and highly differentiated offering. 

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