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“Boom and Bust” in employability & skills: Where is the innovation in FE?

Sean Wallace offers marketing & bid writing services which help training, employability, and skills providers get more learners and win more contracts.
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Let’s be honest: our industry has a few problems.

George Selmer wrote a great article recently where he talked about several of them.

It’s well worth a read: How do employability providers escape the Groundhog Day of boom and bust?

One major issue he identified was the industry’s overreliance on government funding, which presents a few difficulties.

But I’m going to focus on just one of them: government is NOT good at assessing what constitutes an effective provider.

And some of my colleagues in bid writing?

They’re REALLY good at convincing funders and primes to hand contracts to mediocre companies.

Lack of rigor in FE means no incentive to innovate 

Compared to other industries which rely on government investment (like scientific research and innovation funding streams), the level of rigor in employability, training, and adult education procurement is shocking.

A half-decent Ofsted grade, writing a great bid, and achieving targets can often be enough to secure continued funding if there isn’t strong competition.

For many providers, that means there is no incentive to innovate.

Almost across the board, independent training providers have failed to embrace improvements in Customer & Product Development, Project Management, Marketing, and User Experience which have been standard in other industries for years.

That compounds reliance on government funding because industry doesn’t want to deal with loosie goosie providers who can’t show that their service provides a positive ROI for private business.

It’s time to get out of the building

It’s a challenging problem.

But ask the leaders of any unicorn startup and they’ll tell you the first step in effective innovation is to “get out of the building” and speak to your customers.

And I don’t mean that your Employer Engagement Team, your support advisors, and your tutors (although you should listen to them too.)

I mean YOU, the MD or CEO, and the rest of your leaders.

Put aside an afternoon as often as you can to speak to the learners and employers you serve.

Monthly would be a great start.

This approach is a hallmark of startups and the tech world, so I understand if you don’t think it applies to you.

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But trust me, the providers who have excelled in the past year of remote delivery are those who have worked with customers to innovate in response to the unique problems the pandemic spawned.

Because nobody is better placed than your customers to tell you which of problems they need solving and how… and nobody is better placed to lead that change in your business than you.

Throwing techniques like customer journey mapping and other UX approaches into the mix can add a lot to this process. But leadership having one-on-one conversations with your customers is absolutely central to:

  1. Growing a culture of customer-focused innovation
  2. Driving effective continuous improvement
  3. Positioning your product and respond with agility to market changes
  4. Marketing your business effectively (there’s nothing more powerful than your happy customers’ words when it comes to marketing)
  5. Establishing the customer, their problems, and how to solve them as your guiding focus

Don’t let your training and employability offer be a commodity

A commodity is an economic good of which every unit is identical as far as the market is concerned.

If your product is the same as every other provider and you market yourself the same as every other provider, you’re indistinguishable from other providers.

You don’t want your product to be a commodity because that makes you replaceable.

That’s a Bad Thing™.

Imagine Oxford University. What are they known for?

My first thought (and probably yours) can be summed up in two words: “academic excellence”.

Their reputation for excellence means that nobody would call a degree from Oxford a commodity.

You’re not Oxford University but there is SOMETHING which sets you apart from other providers.

Until you get out of the building and speak to your customers, you won’t be certain what that is.

Here’s a final thought: the pandemic has focused minds in the industry and this type of thinking is getting serious attention. In particular, there’s a lot of talk about FE Colleges participating in the innovation ecosystem.

If government follows the recommendations floating around and gives English FE Colleges the freedom they want to innovate, their level of funding will swiftly make it challenging for independent providers to compete.

You can’t beat your local college on funding, but you can beat them on agility.

The providers that don’t will lbe first to the chopping block next time we hit the “Bust” part of cycle.

So, what are you waiting for?

Sean Wallace offers marketing & bid writing services which help training, employability, and skills providers get more learners and win more contracts.

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