Bryan Sanderson: Education should learn from the business world

From the Royal Society of Arts lecture given by the chairman of the Learning and Skills Council at KPMG in London
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Like all suppliers we need to both know what we are selling and who our customers are. It seems to me that if we are to change the way that people learn, we need to look at how we sell learning.

Like all suppliers we need to both know what we are selling and who our customers are. It seems to me that if we are to change the way that people learn, we need to look at how we sell learning. After all, why call learning learning? First, it's a user name. It's a name that makes sense if you're in the business. It's a trade name. But the most successful products are not trade names. They're names that are shaped for the market, shaped to make the buyer feel good. They're there to create the outcome that the company wants. In most cases, the sale. We need to do the same for learning. If the name is not delivering the outcome we want then let's change the name. We need to listen to the people we want to reach and find ways of describing what we do in terms that mean something to them.

Second, we need to know more about why people don't want to learn. User surveys. Talking to the people who drop out and find out why they did. Unless we know what turned the customers off then we're never likely to be able to turn them back on again.

Third, we need to create positive associations with the learning experience. Let's look for brand associations. We know it works. There have been a number of experiments involving football clubs (one near to my heart) in learning. Students are attracted to the classroom because they perceive the value of that association. It takes them to where they personally want to go. They see their heroes positively associate with something that matters. And it creates a result.

Fourth, we need to focus on the what's in it for me factor. That matters. It's what drives customers in and out of shops every day of the week. It means packaging our learning to meet the personal and lifestyle demands of the markets we are trying to reach. It may threaten institutions. But there's a lot more at stake here than the pride of individual colleges. Look at the business world. There, they focus in on the outcome. The sale. If I were being crass I would say that nothing else matters. That would be to oversimplify. Business is about a lot more than simply making money. But nothing can happen – the altruism, the contribution to society, and the enlightened self-interest – unless the sales are secured. Otherwise they go bankrupt and can help nobody.

Apply the same thinking to further education. Customers can be disaffected, there can be a high drop-out rate, there may be no match between what the customer wants and what they get, there may be continuous rethinks of the policy but none of those things matter because there's probably a belief that the money will come anyway. To be brutal, we in the Learning and Skills Council need to inject a little discomfort into this scenario.

Success in business depends upon knowing your customers, knowing what they want and then talking to them about your product in their terms. And therein lies one great difficulty for the Learning Business. By and large we talk to the people about our product in terms that suit us. We talk about curricula, learning programmes. Further education, as a product, is described in terms of the producer rather than the consumer.

We are standing with our intellectual capital in our shopping malls and we're selling products on our terms. Our potential customers saunter past completely oblivious of the excellence of our wares. We need to address the fundamentals if we are to solve the problem. The reason that successful brands meet needs is that they sell the product in terms that make sense to the consumer. You don't hear Tesco say "keen to ensure that we meet our own quality standards". You hear "every little helps". You won't hear Honda say, "leading technological advances that make car manufacturers feel good". You see "the power of dreams".

I am not saying the Learning and Skills Council will have all the answers. But we are certainly in a good position to help glue the sector together.