Sometimes you have an idea that is so simple that you can’t see how it can fail. But in learning, being right is not always the quickest way to success.
In 2000 I came back from LearnTech in the US with an idea, which I wrote up on the plane. I think everyone who attends a conference should do a write-up with recommendations. Inspired with the success of Napster, which eventually changed the music industry forever, I wanted to apply the technology to a less glamorous sector. I had delivered a report to the IDEA, the Improvement and Development Agency for local government, showing that training in the 450 Local Authorities in England and Wales amounted to around was over half a billion a year (verified by an Audit last year at £540m), but about two thirds of this was duplicated. Read that again, two thirds of the spend was DUPLICATED – and therefore wasted. Training departments were mostly doing their own thing designing, developing and delivering their own DIY courses.
So I went to the IDEA Director who had commissioned this research and said, “I have an idea that could dramatically reduce this figure”. He had worked in New York as a consultant for Deloittes, so was used to straight ROI talk. “Look, your 450 authorities are not competitors and desperate for efficiencies. Get them to share the design, development and delivery of training, freeing that back-end money for front-line work.”
We did it, dived in, branded it LearningPool, launched it in a bar in Soho, handed it over to the IDEA, and I lost track of its progress. To be honest I thought it had gone the way of most of these things- extinction.
Suddenly, years later , out of the blue, I received an email from two people who had bought the business in 2006 and are now doing what it intended to do all those years ago. They’ve built a successful business, www.learningpool.com, providing a pool of content and services to local authorities, police, housing associations, schools and universities, on the simple idea of sharing. They have 150 local authority customers and others in other public sector areas. It’s a single pool in which everyone can swim to exchange solutions and solve problems.
For a very reasonable fee you get access to a large and growing library of e-learning courses, an authoring tool, access to the exchange and (the important bit) lots of support in selling and implementing e-learning. Rather than delivering endless classroom courses at a fixed cost every time, you distribute e-learning to all officers, councillors, school governors, or whoever. But it’s the services in terms of being part of a national community that matter. It’s so simple and so obvious that you may wonder why everyone in the public sector doesn’t do it this way.
Duplication of effort, is the primary inefficiency in the public sector. This is especially true in education and training. Duplication in teaching is the norm. Every teacher is an auteur who designs, develops and delivers their own personal lessons and courses. Duplication in processes means that every local authority and school wastes endless amounts of time and money trying to find, amend or invent processes and policies. Then there’s duplication in procurement, where things that should be dealt with at national levels are devolved down to the individual school or college or local authority. In e-learning, the advantages come from volume. It’s a numbers game. Share, and for every pound you invest you’ll get hundreds back.
Speaking to Andrew Pinder this week, who was Chair of BECTA, we both agreed that technology solution cannot be delegated down to individual institutions. The business model must look to solutions that lie above non-competitive institutions where the cost is shared, whether it’s schools, colleges, universities, local authorities, charities, hospitals, GP surgeries, local government, police forces, government bodies and government departments.
This will need leadership from the National Audit Office, as well as others in government. It's possible, and with over 2.5 million learners through UFI (learndirect) I've seen it happen outside of institutions. A little joined up thinking and government could go a long way here.
It's time to stop splashing about in our own tiny, shallow paddling pools and go for a swim in a pool or better still the sea of e-learning.