Standing still or stepping forward: A tale of two companies

Read Time 4 Mins
by Ben Dawe
Principles
Learning & Development

With a publishing career that’s straddled both print and digital, Learnosity’s VP of Business Development Ben Dawe reflects on his time at Macmillan Education and the dangers of sitting still as the market moves on.

“Macmillan Education Schools Division to withdraw from Australia market”

The Bookseller August 9, 2019

It was the best of times, as Dickens put it, when Macmillan was competitive in the Australian market. And it was the worst of times to see the red wings run back down the flagpole. Vale, old friend.

I joined the “firm” as a young man in 1996 – back when Seinfeld was still in production, if you needed the context. Some sixteen years later, I left: older, balder, and maybe a little wiser.

I’d changed roles multiple times, carried books into schools in brown Globite suitcases, and went toe-to-toe with the Great Indifferent. That’s how I characterized teachers as consumers. And who could blame them – what’s a harried educator going to do with a salesperson anyway? Especially one with a BEd driving around New South Wales on their way into a second career.

Remembering when

At Macmillan, I climbed the ladder. By the time I’d finished my climb, I’d published content on just about every subject area – including Maths, which nearly killed me. I ended up sitting in senior management meetings with some accomplishments, no regrets, and a strong sense of déjà vu.

What I’d already seen was a circular discussion about technology investment. 

It went something like this: 

  • The market demands X technology
  • We can afford Y technology
  • So let’s take a minimal risk on Z technology 

Round and round it went. Up and down. Like a carousel.

Enter the game-changer

That’s not a judgment on anyone. Deep down, Macmillan was an old-school content company. And it did very well, delivering profits for most of its 45 years in Australia. First to the Macmillan family. Then to the Holtzbrinck family. And, lest I forget, to the Dawe family too.

It was great fun while it lasted. Those of us who bore the title Publisher were somebodies – learned friends of hard-working authors whose names people actually still knew. Names like Sadler, Stannard, and Williamson. 

But when the game became something else, sometime around 2006/7, the fun began to dissipate. It was a kind of an invisible tipping point, the moment interactive learning started to escalate as a driver rather than just an add-on. Like contemporary governments watching climate change, it was a tense juncture. We had evidence of impending change but not quite enough to act immediately in the face of economic realities. We knew full well that the market was going to change but we were caught between making big decisions on local platform development or waiting for others to take the initiative.

"Around 2006/7, the fun began to dissipate. It was a kind of an invisible tipping point, the moment interactive learning started to escalate as a driver rather than just an add-on." Click To Tweet

In the end, I recall Macmillan opting to go for a “fastest follower” strategy (in Australian terms, doing a “Bradbury”). I think that was where we probably went wrong. It seemed like a lower-risk strategy but it ended up paralyzing innovation and running counter to Macmillan’s competitive culture.

Dealing with disruption

In any case, I hated the disruption to what had been a level style of playing field.  I didn’t like the (ironically) paper-thin argument around new products that were without glued binding.

I wanted the world to return to the way Harold Macmillan left it. It was more civilized. It stood on terra firma: centuries of learned practice; paper, binding, and glue; and the names of real people rather than platforms – authors, with dates of birth, biases, and grey hair. 

But the world wouldn’t go back in time – only forward.

In that tough period, we Macmillan-ers batted digital ideas around the table that almost always returned to some kind of an enhanced PDF output. We were well equipped with the old-world skills of educational content, design, and finesse; but undergunned on how to handle embedded educational technology.

Part of what we needed was a local technology fund and some agile platform development. What we got was a classic waterfall model of “Global Platform” that was meant to satisfy all markets at once. Stakeholders bid for features and won on the strength of the business case they presented. But the local market was more demanding than slow-moving ebook platforms that did little more than transfer content from page to screen.

Sadly, or happily – I’m not sure which – what customers demanded was genuine innovation. By 2010, Steve Jobs and co had introduced devices that demanded a whole new way of interacting with the world. Loading flat PDFs on these devices was akin to using a rocket ship to transport timber.

Stepping into tomorrow

In hindsight, it’s clear that the educational publishing industry as a whole was disrupted by shifting customer expectations during the last decade. 

Some companies competed better under those conditions than others. The withdrawal of Macmillan, through one lens at least, is the oldest departure story ever – a failure of a multinational to adapt quickly enough to disrupted local conditions.

On the flip side, the remaining players should take a bow. They ran with ideas, took risks and let the market reward whom it would.

Pearson Australia, for example, took the bull by the horns with Pearson Lightbook. The world’s most interactive textbook. It was light years ahead of the global market. 

"In hindsight, it’s clear that the educational publishing industry as a whole was disrupted by shifting customer expectations during the last decade."  Click To Tweet

Jacaranda Wiley pivoted beautifully in the new environment, changing their sales model, adding online assessment to their mix, and evolving to a holistic, customer-centric solution in LearnOn. 

Of the local players, Origo Maths has created a pathway to digitization by investing a portion of their content earnings into smart innovation.

And digital-only opportunists like 3P Learning created a whole new market with the introduction of the math-specific platform, Mathletics

[Obvious disclaimer alert: Learnosity partners with all of these companies!]

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. This is just another biased business case study about tech disruption and opportunity.

Well, in a way, it is. But by my wrinkles, I speak no fake news, dear reader. I was an eyewitness to events as they unfolded. 

The fact is that the decade-long decline of Macmillan Education Australia coincided with the decade-long rise of Learnosity. 

That’s not some kind of coincidence; it’s simply a clear signal of how quickly markets change.

Finding a focus in the Digital Age

In 2007, Learnosity began developing a niche solution that educational publishers needed – pluggable assessment technology. It went on to refine its technology to the point it became the industry’s standard-bearer.

It was both a starting point and a tipping point – the result of both impeccable timing by our co-founders and superb execution by a remarkable team.

Fast forward to 2019 and the lithe, adaptable, innovative approach has served us very well indeed. With more than a hundred prestigious customers and 15 million monthly active users, I’m glad to be on the right side of change. But to those fine souls that served on the good ship Macmillan Education Australia – vale, and thanks for the memories.

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