Building a better Digital Strategy - Step 3: Share the Risk

30 April 2018

In his third and final post, AND Trustee Eylan Ezekiel shares his tips for creating a better digital strategy for Arts, Culture and Heritage organisations engaging with schools

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(Image credit: EJP Photo)

This is the third of 3 posts sharing steps to a better digital strategy for Arts, Culture and Heritage organisations engaging with schools - read the first two in the series below:

Step 1: Seek Connections

Step 2: Spread the Load

In this final post, I want to make a case for crossing the hardest line of all for most Arts, Culture and Heritage (ACH) organisations: to work with for-profits. Clearly, for many partners of A New Direction, this is a problematic move, but potentially worth it to create edtech that has more impact, with less risk to your reserves!

You don’t need me to tell you how tough things are in the education sector right now. I’ll not spend time explaining the impact of government education policy and shrinking funding on your audiences. However, it is worth pointing out that the whole sector is struggling, including those who have a profit-driven business model. More commercial publishers, media/tech companies, and membership organisations working in the schools sector are going after less available budget and even less available attention.

Just like you, they are balancing huge risks, even when they have great content and run a tight project:

  • Too much noise: Too few teachers hear about a new offer, and don’t find it
  • Too much change: The work falls outside of the current exam syllabus / revised curriculum / new initiative / changing policy, and it isn’t relevant
  • Missing the mark: The solution isn’t what people wanted (even when they said that they did)
  • Competition: Someone, perhaps from outside the UK, beats you to it and grabs ‘market share’
  • Speed of technological development: The technology moves too fast, platforms come and go, terms of service change, users change behaviour faster than you can adapt

For-profits are, unlike ACH organisations, familiar with risk. As a result they could be a perfect partner to increase impact; as long as you are clear in what’s in it for you!

Benefit 1 - Expertise and knowledge

There is a huge edtech industry in the UK, and we are perceived internationally as having the most expert and creative sector - even compared with the much better funded US market. From start-ups to corporates, from early years right into Higher Education - and using a range of pedagogies, platforms and business model - the UK has some of the brightest and best learning technology talent in the world. Boasting to one side, whether it is called learning technologies (HE) elearning (professional), or edtech (schools) - the issues are much the same - and we’ve all got lots to learn from each other.

Part of my work in the ACH sector is being a maven, making the right connections and introductions. But there are lots of useful places for you and your team to start looking. To tap into these networks you could visit the biggest annual edtech event in the world, BETTShow, or listen to the edtech podcast. Another great place to start is BESA, the industry body for those supplying schools (which could include you!?). There are special interest groups for edtech, as well as for areas including SEND.

Benefit 2 - A business model that fits you

Not all for-profits are evil-corps. This is especially true in the education sector, where profit margins are often wafer thin. Most MDs are also governors of schools, many are ex-teachers, who care as much about schools as their bottom line. No one sets up a business in the education sector expecting to be a millionaire! I can rattle off a list of edu-business leaders whose commitment to social justice, the arts, improving access is evidenced in terms of commercial choices as well as time/resources given.

This is most evident in the digital learning sector, where teachers, developers, entrepreneurs, and academics are coming together to make better solutions for schools in new ways. Networks like EDUCATE, and accelerators like Emerge have opened the floodgates of creativity, and there is a growing investment into this sector beyond the big corporates.

A start-up might have a business model plan that starts of as purely commercial, but, if your fit with their offering is good, you could find common values and goals, and make something work together. The basis of the arrangement might vary - but a key benefit to you would be externalising the risk, and clearly limiting the extent of your financial commitment. Risks (reputational and financial) remain - but, based on the poor impact of most ACH digital projects - the risk of doing it worse is low!

Benefit 3 - Fiscal discipline and user focus

Both in terms of production (ideating and making the right thing to answer a need), and marketing (making sure as many people know about, and use a product), for-profits depend on getting things right for their very existence! As a result, they have very clear metrics for a successful project - i.e. if the idea is going to have enough traction to turn a profit.

I’ve sat with too many clients in the ACH sector who were determined to make something that they believed in, but only a tiny number of teachers would ever use. It’s not always possible to stop public money being ‘wasted’, but asking whether a commercial partner would support a project might be a useful question to ask theoretically, or for real!

Too few ACH organisations take a Design Thinking or Agile approach to product development, and decide what’s best for teachers in committee meetings, with no teachers in the room!

If teachers/schools wouldn’t value it enough to pay for it, why would you make it? Of course, answers to this question are context dependent but still important, and best mediated using tools like the Business Model Canvas to help focus conversation.

As soon as you ask teachers to pay for something, and place a ‘value’ on it (including the additional costs of time, training and admin), you get a sense of how much impact you will have. But, until you get more schools to see your work, you cannot get the more interesting information about whether it had an impact. The opportunity to tap into expert marketing and sales teams would increase engagement with the work you do and provide more useful evidence of impact than the number of downloads of a static pdf.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that every project should be monetised and the whole ACH partnered with a commercial organisation, as that is clearly not always appropriate. Also, sales figures are not a proxy for impact. For-profits are not always values-led and have a very different mission to the partners of A New Direction and the wider ACH sector. Unfortunately, there are plenty of commercially successful products that make very little difference to children’s lives, but I know many passionate educators who now lead successful and impactful for-profit business who’d be open to working with the ACH sector more directly.

More importantly, bringing the commercial rigour to publically funded projects can be an essential discipline in a sector full of beautiful but underused learning resources.

Don’t forget...

Issues like Intellectual Property, licensing, data sharing, and money are details that, of course, need careful support and implementation. For-profits are not all sharks, but they are much clearer on their purpose and constraints. ACH organisations seeking to share the risk with for-profits should be careful not so much of being taken advantage of intentionally, but of a mismatch of skills. Find help to bridge the work you do together and, most of all, retain the focus on impact with the resources you have.

Finally, good luck! I hope these three suggestions have been helpful or at least of interest. I love feedback and challenge! If you’d like to share views, stories or ask questions, please do so on Twitter: @eylanezekiel and with @A_New_Direction

Eylan Ezekial.jpg

Eylan Ezekiel is a Trustee at A New Direction. He is an edtech producer and teacher, with a specialist consultancy in digital education.

Posted under Creative Commons Licence - CC BY-NC

Read Eylan's other posts on building a better digital strategy below:

Step 1: Seek Connections

Step 2: Spread the Load