Businesses do many things to build their brands, reputations and profits. In my 25 years of working in marketing, PR and the media ‘ideas’ come and go and just as frequently reappear again, often with a new name and acronym.
In the last decade many large organisations have hitched their corporate wagons to the concept of thought leadership. Joel Kurtzman of Booz, Allen & Hamilton is credited with popularising the phrase, which in essence says that the thought leader (company and management) are recognised by their peers as understanding their business, customers and the market in which they operate. What it seems to have morphed into is an attempt by companies to try to shape debate, decision-making and purchasing in markets by influencing the influencers.
It’s interesting to see that the development of this concept almost mirrors exactly the boom in the internet and rise of technology. Why? Well it’s arguable that business and government decision makers now need more help to understand and adapt to a rapidly changing global environment. On the more cynical side you could see it as part of a trend to outsource thinking and policy by governments who have reached the limits of their sovereign capacity in a global village.
Pearson and thought leadership
Rather than getting bogged down in the history let’s look at how thought leadership is impacting education. In this case I’m going to look at Pearson, the world’s largest education company.
Pearson’s website says that they are, ‘an international media company with market-leading businesses in education, business information and consumer publishing’. In reality education is their core DNA as it represents about 75% of revenue and over 80% of profits. The problem Pearson have had for sometime is that they are seen as much (if not more) by investors as a media player (Penguin, the Financial Times, etc) than they are as the number one player in the education market. Fixing this perception would have a beneficial effect on Pearson’s share price.
It’s hard to address this sort of issue in the short-term, and this is where thought leadership comes in. By building their position as the thought leaders in education, Pearson hopes to shift the market’s perception and the share price upwards. To do this they have done established the Pearson Foundation (in the US) and by appointed educational luminaries like Sir Michael Barber, who is now their Chief Education Advisor.
One of the academic ‘founders’ of thought leadership was the Indian-born, Harvard-educated academic, C.K. Prahalad, who from 2008 until his death in 2010, was a non-executive director at Pearson. Prahalad’s knowledge of thought leadership, and his influence over Pearson’s nascent B2C strategy in India, will be hugely important legacies for the company for many years to come (see my story about Pearson’s B2C strategy in India).
However, thought leadership also has boundaries and these have been highlighted recently in a story in the New York Times, that raises questions about whether or not state education commissioners should accept invitations to attend international events hosted by the Pearson Foundation. The story points out that most of the commissioners invited represent states with major contracts with Pearson. The Foundation’s head hit back saying claims of impropriety are baseless and that events (plus related travel, hospitality and meetings with executives from Pearson) are ‘in pursuit of educational excellence’.
What also makes some US educators even more chary about the Pearson Foundation is the breadth of their involvement in US educational policy making, particularly their funding of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the body driving the new national learning standards known as the Common Core. The issue of national versus state in education is not a debate restricted to the US (Australia has seven different state curricula and is trialling a national curriculum). But what potentially undermines some of the Foundation’s claims of independent thought leadership, is that the events seem to map closely to countries where Pearson have major investments in the education market.
For example, the most recent Pearson Foundation/CCSSO International Conference on Education was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In August 2010, Pearson paid about US$510m for the school learning system business of Sistema Educacional Brasileiro, a leading Brazilian education company (the Brazilian educational materials and services market is estimated to be worth US$2bn).
Prior to this the Foundation’s conferences were in:
- London 2010 – Pearson’s head office and where investments include the largest exam board, Edexcel
- Helsinki 2009 – centre of the ‘Scandinavian education revolution’, Anders Hultin, Pearson’s Managing Director of School Improvement, is the former CEO of Kunskapsskolan, Sweden’s largest non-government school
- Singapore 2008 – Asia is a key growth market for Pearson’s education business.
Pearson are without a doubt thought leaders in education, but there is a grey area where this can crossover into subtle (and even not so subtle) salesmanship and influence peddling. While the perception may be entirely different from the reality, Pearson faces a serious choice about the limits of their thought leadership strategy. Do they continue with these events, or do they change their structure and sever educational thought leadership from any commercial aspects, leaving any sales and marketing to their local education teams? This ‘Chinese Wall’ approach is used by many organisations where there is the possibility of perceived conflicts of interest. If Pearson really want to build a sustainable thought leadership programme, (and the appointment of Sir Michael Barber and Anders Hultin indicate they do) then I think they make some changes.
In 2011 Pearson paid US$127m for a controlling stake in TutorVista, they have a major strategic partnership with Educomp Solutions and have just announced a US$215k commitment to the Indian ‘Support My School’ campaign (a public-private partnership to create learning environments and basic amenities in rural areas). My prediction is that the next CCSSO/Pearson Foundation education conference will be held in (hold your breath); India!
If I’m right is it precognition or thought leadership, you decide?