This post is written by Farimah Schuerman, Managing Partner of Academic Business Advisors.
Are you a senior manager of a company that develops and sells instructional solutions, especially for math and reading? If so, you've felt the pain of the recession and may wonder how you can best survive the "new normal." One way to ensure your company's survival is to see the current situation from your customer's view. What's causing them to more carefully consider every purchase may run deeper than you think.
The rush to meet the guidelines for the Common Core standards and the anxiety around meeting the objectives of the related assessments is masking a much deeper and more daunting challenge school districts’ leadership team: Change Management. While leaders of commercial enterprises have understood and embraced practices that guide a corporation through change when outside forces require it, this has never been a part of the education culture. Now, school personnel at all levels are being bombarded with change. If you understand the forces behind the change and can help administrators cope and adapt, you could find your business thriving, even during a down economy.
Three Forces Driving Change: What’s the Impact on School Administrators?
Driving Force #1: Common Core Standards Are Forcing New Processes
The shift to Common Core has required districts to take a long, hard look at which processes they can keep doing as before, and which must change. Teaching is shifting from knowledge-based, to learning-based approaches. It’s not what the teacher knows, it’s what the students learn; students need to grasp concepts, not commit facts to short term memory, and to demonstrate that they can apply what they have learned to new problems. Good teachers have used this approach for years with success, but many others have not. Successful companies are already reacting to this catalyst and providing leadership, producing instructional materials, particularly in reading and math, that use the latest cognitive research to help teachers help each student learn.
Driving Force # 2: Professional Development That is Results-Oriented
This leads me to the second pressure point: meaningful professional development (PD) and related evaluation. Teachers need to be prepared not only to align instruction to the Common Core Curriculum, but how to extract the best learning. This involves disrupting traditional classroom strategies based on the new realities: the use of new technologies, mainstreaming students with special needs, and problem based learning, just to name a few. We hear the terms "personalized learning" and "individualized instruction" which expand on the concept of differentiated instruction. I wonder how many teachers are equipped to teach this way, especially as class sizes grow larger than we've experienced before. The best PD providers are building both product-specific and generalized tools for helping teachers successfully make these changes and for administrators to better manage them.
Driving Force #3: Doing More with Less
A third pressure is the combination of diminished or flat school funding while expenses, particularly those around staff benefits, are on the rise.
In this time of greater accountability, teachers, administrators, and materials are being measured, evaluated, and judged, even when outcomes can’t be specifically tied to specific actions. Diminished funding also comes at a time when there is momentum to acquire and support costly technology solutions which promise to improve learning. A firehose of new technology applications have the potential to provide more reliable collection and analysis of student data. But, administrators feel forced to make stressful decisions and often feel the frustration that there may be no "good" decision, just the best one they can make under bad circumstances and with incomplete information or unbiased guidance. Successful companies are finding ways of tying their solutions to both fiscal austerity and high achievement.
Strong Company Leaders to the Rescue
So what's the point of painting this negative picture? It's not to depress you, but to remind you that in order to be successful in this environment, everyone who works for your company must understand these forces and be empathetic. Company leaders, starting with the CEO and every employee must understand the buyer's perspective when trying to get excellent products, with game-changing possibilities, into the hands of students who need them. So, here are some guiding questions I suggest you consider as a leader of an organization that serves the school market:
- How does your product (or service) make the buyer's life better?
- Can you articulate how your product solves a pressing problem?
- Does the problem your product or service addresses keep school leaders up at night?
- What else is required, or has to change for educators to implement your product successfully and do you understand how the implementation will be managed?
- Does your product or service replace a product that is established and gets the job done - not as well as yours, but works?
- How much teacher training will be required to effectively utilize your product or service and when do you expect this training to be provided?
- When your product is implemented, will instructional time have to be managed differently?
- Will using your product require that students are identified in a new or different way?
Four Steps You Can Take Today on the Pathway to Success
1. Help Potential Customers Secure Funds
How will educators pay for your product? While this is a basic question, the answer is not always straightforward. If grants are necessary, how will they be secured? How can you help? Does the use of your product save some other expense? Credit recovery products have used this approach, retaining students brings income to the district that can cover the expense. What strategies like this could you use to reduce perceived costs?
2. Train and Support Your Sales Team
It is critical that your sales team can display empathy for school administrators who are under fire. Some ways they do this are by confirming timing and by offering alternatives for scheduling, and by being sensitive to the timing of other initiatives that are going on in the district. They need to develop a deep understanding of the district’s priorities. Administrators are pulled into committees, community meetings, staff trainings and are thrashed around by external forces can affect the salesperson's ability to drive deals forward on your company's schedule.
3. Think Through the Entire Process from Sale to Implementation
Understanding the principals of change management will help your company guide and support your customers through the challenges they face. When you are proposing a product adoption, think about how it will affect the district or school and take the time to plan the change with the administrators. Look at calendaring with them. Offer support for how data might flow if the product has instructional impact. Think about how teachers will need to do things differently, and figure out how best to stage those changes so they are as easy as possible. Assign support staff to monitor these changes; don't encumber the sales team with that task, that's not their role, or their expertise. Supporting implementations will distract them from their principal function: driving new sales. Take time to help your entire staff understand the current dynamics of change so that each one can be empathetic and supportive during any interaction with customers or prospects.
4. Plan for the Future
Finally, senior management needs to be prepared that sales are slower under these circumstances, and you need to be cognizant of the cash flow implications of this slowed decision-making process. Unless you have a "must-have" product, you will need to tighten your belts and hunker down. Keep these points in mind!
This process of re-imagining products and services requires a radical change in underlying beliefs; it’s what in 1962 Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift. While business leaders can attempt this process internally, it is often best facilitated by outsiders, because it involves a significant shift in perception.
Of course, if you do seek outside help, we hope that you will consider Academic Business Advisors.