28 December 2006

The Can-Do Statements of the ELT business

The CEFR has been a revelation so far, not only by introducing a standard framework of skills and abilities (besides it’s too standardized in this respect), but mainly by introducing autonomy, self-evaluation and the concept of producing what’s now known as Can-Do statements. However, for those who see the real value of the concept and not just the superficial “recipe”, it’s impossible to underestimate the potential for expansion into every field of activity requiring improvement, training and growth. One of these fields is your business itself.

Can-Do statements related to a knowledge and practice area, more than anything, set targets, as long as, of course, one can understand what being able to do something really means, and what use there is in it.

Business Can-Do statements should be able to relate to the success and growth of the business, but also to the satisfaction of persons involved, including the owner, the human resources and most of all the recipient of the product and the client. A business is like a human being – it needs to be viable and healthy, but also popular, growing, a good constant learner, a “socialiser”; it also needs to be adaptable and a good negotiator. Like humans, businesses have to be all the above in order to be accepted, preferred, popular, healthy and wealthy. Like humans, businesses have to spend and invest money and energy, not only to produce, but also to maintain themselves and achieve the above survival prerequisites.

Bearing in mind the above, the following could be defined as the main Business Can-Do areas in Greek ELT:
1) My business CAN plan and ensure its “nutritional” supplies for the times to come:
A business plan with an analysis of the “physical and mental” requirements and strategies of maintenance and growth is vital.

2) My business CAN develop a methodology of monitoring the implementation and progress of its survival and growth plan:
A policy of regular “check-ups”, controls, and correctional actions is as important as medical check-ups and health plans are for the human body and mind, as long as, of course, the checklist is specific and examined in co-operation with the right specialist.

3) My business CAN look after its organic vital resources:
As the human brain and heart are in charge of ensuring the good health and functionality of themselves and the rest of the organs that service the body, so should the business, for its human and other resources. In humans, a suicidal cell can be transformed into a cancer cell. The human body has the mechanisms to reject it, as long as it consistently monitors the whole body and mental function. Negligence or lack of awareness could allow this cell to “contaminate” several areas of the body with lethal consequences.

4) My business CAN ensure its prominence and competitive advantage through skills acquisition:
As humans learn and acquire new skills and techniques in order to stand out socially and professionally, so our business has to always make sure it is one step ahead. Members of society stick with their strongest, most knowledgeable peers. We’re all engineered to aim high and share glory, power, comfort and security while at the same time saving money and energy, avoiding hardship and enjoying high value. A prominent business can shape criteria, attract friends and fans, create trends.

5) My business CAN successfully communicate its prominence and competitive advantage:
A communication-focused plan referring to skills acquisition, experimentation, investment, actions, controls and measurements is vital in order to ensure marketability and popularity. A thorough analysis of the codes the target group understands will provide a strong foundation towards that.

6) My business CAN be useful (if not necessary):
Humans are self-centred. Usefulness, though, is judged by the recipient of an action. Our business has to listen and not assume. Then our business has to evaluate what is needed and, if required, to guide and educate its recipients. At the end of the day, our business will be judged by result alone.

7) My business CAN visualize itself and its condition in the long run:
Set targets, visualize your business’s existence in 5, 10, 20 years from now. Think what the world is like today and how likely it is to remain the same in the long run. How easy is it to predict? What skills does your business need to always be up-to-date?
Monitor that your course of action serves your targets. The journey will change various times, your targets should be met, whatever the journey.

8) My business CAN have access to all available tools and facilitators for its welfare:
Find the right specialists and tools that will help your business stand out. Evaluate their Can-Dos and their compatibility with your needs and visions. Use and be used by the right people and grow together. Find your niche but don’t compromise on your learning course. Always stay one step ahead.

The above areas are generic, but universal. A customized set of procedures, fully compliant with the personality and personal targets of the owner, will ensure the above Can-Dos. Fair and healthy entrepreneurship is not what Greece is renowned for. However, education is the most significant field, where the first small revolutions should brew. The education everybody once received reflects their current being. It’s as simple as that.

28 November 2006

The educational product no.2 - Re-energizing a dormant industry

To date, whenever somebody asked “so what exactly do you do?”, the most natural answer that came out of my mouth is “re-energizing dormant educational businesses”. The influence of seminars I had attended myself was, of course, obvious in this answer. However, the extent of the problem I was coming up against as a consultant reached the edges of the whole private language school field and not only specific businesses. The reasons are known – I have analysed them often over the past few years, but so far the solutions have only reached the hands of a few owners and educators. They do now have a substantial competitive advantage in a dormant field, but the actual process is a real struggle, having to swim through the murky pulp of a turbulently sinking field and the resistance of existing or potential markets and clients.

My own experience of running a company, as well as social circumstances of wider interest, played a specifically enlightening role in 2006. At the end of 2005, I gave out for the second time to my readers the results of our annual research. Maybe the most outstanding element of this research was the fact that 77% of adult certificate holders in Greece do not feel they can confidently and effectively use the foreign language they have been certified for.

Followingly, in the summer of 2006, we came across a sad phenomenon in my own company. Advertising a specific number of new posts, we received a large number (about 450) of CVs in application. Unfortunately, the short-listing procedure was too easy. You can easily tell where parents’ money goes when a BA and MBA holder proves to be unable to write competently either in Greek or in English or both. Half of all the applications we received were directed to us via e-mails addressed apparently to a large number of businesses at the same time as ours, and not ‘Bcc-ed’, but blatantly ‘To-ed’. Worst of all, though we specifically asked for a European Passport CV, also giving instructions about where to download the template from, only 10% of the CVs were along the lines of the specifications we asked for. Interviews were even more disheartening, but, as my colleague Paul says, this is an everyday situation when he interviews teachers as well.

During the whole summer and in September as well, we all, as a nation, have been experiencing the beginning of a possibly violent forthcoming ‘educational reform’ with Mrs. Marietta Giannakou bearing the heaviest globalization cross. Also, this autumn, some shocking news reached my ears from our educational Guru European State, the UK, realizing educational gaps with long-term side effects for culture and economy. I was in the UK, and my friend Nick Blinco, Development Director of the University of Birmingham, was admitting to me that traditional benefactors of the University from around the world have started to hesitate giving their donations, seeing the bad quality of graduates that Universities in the UK feed the employment market with. And the whole problem is contained within the overestimation of accreditation and certification against what graduates CAN actually DO.

What all the theory around the CEF-R hadn’t managed to do to my brain, a few words that day did, and I rushed back to Thessaloniki, calling about 20 of the short-listed candidates for our vacancies in the summer. I politely asked for an add-on interview, which, literally speaking, was just one question: “Right, Mr or Miss xyz, I appreciate your certificate, BA and MBA. Could you explain to me, specifically based on the above qualifications, what you CAN DO for yourself?”

The catch was not in what they CAN DO, but in the expression ‘“for yourself’ of course. This is where every educational system has failed, and our industry, ELT in Greece, fully, half or not-at-all recognized, is part of this system. Because amongst the majority of our ‘frontisterio graduates’ what they CAN all DO is successfully earn points within the ASEP assessment system. What sadly only a few of them CAN also DO is use the foreign language as a means of communication, self-promotion, and self-marketing in fact. The language is a tool to help you point out your background, knowledge, “paideia”. So the skill you acquired over a number of years is your tool to success. The language has also got some principles to help you do this effectively, based on the culture and trends of the native speakers, as long as anything like that has been taught to you, by somebody who CAN DO it.

While a student or user acquires a skill, a business acquires clients and students, successful or less successful ones. They are the tool to success for the business, as long as the educational business doesn’t prove to be one of those that all they CAN DO is advertise high exams pass rates. That, every educational business CAN DO, as every certificate holder can successfully meet the ASEP requirements. How does the educational business use the knowledge gathered from the presence of successful graduates, though? Which future problems of the latter does it cater for? How does the educational business cater for its own marketing by boosting its client’s self-marketing potential?

It is more vital than ever before to realize that an educational business’s service is maximizing its students’ social and self-marketing potential through teaching an educational item for the latter to use as a tool. The role of education in the EU is going to become a burning hot issue pretty soon. America’s prevailing steps are strongly based on realism of what candidates CAN DO and judgment by result. However, America lacks ‘Academia-for-all’. Europe still has it, but only just. States and state sectors are confused, dependant on forces and trends that are more temporary than markets, but their systems are too consolidated to provide valid feedback at the same time. Private sectors are forced into flexibility, and our humble little ELT is the carrier, if not the Holy Grail, of a set of skills fully compliant with our newborn globalised world. Your students are your product and by maximizing their potential you maximize yours. Their potential is maximized not only by the actual skill they acquire, but by the whole educational experience at your school. As a young parent, I can’t help noticing that children reproduce ten times more experience-related attitudes than you would expect.

If you happen to be the ‘product’ of an outstanding educational experience, point it out! I’m sure what you do is not ALL you CAN DO!

15 October 2006

The educational product

I have been working with ELT businesses for a fair while now. My first task is usually to deal with viability issues and, in specific, to encourage ELT businessmen and women to respect the business side of their school, monitor and measure cost centres, manage human resources, ensure their profit margins and market their identity effectively with respect to the needs and purchase power of parents. Of course, the most difficult part of the task has been to point out all this as the means to improve the owner’s quality of life, as time spent more productively brings more income, and thus more free time to look after their personal lives and their personal goals for self-improvement.

To achieve this target requires the development of lots of internal and external marketing systems and procedures. However, nothing can beat the universal principle of creative differentiation. Differentiation can attract consumers’ attention, meet their needs more effectively, improve customer service. Differentiation can mean more creative marketing, achieve a faster response time to customer requests, and, more to the point, establish an outstanding identity.

The Greek ELT field allows little space for differentiation. However, the problem is definitely not lack of creativity! The problem is a) the size of the field and b) the homogeneity of the businesses that service it. In a few words, the problem is this: the product of the field is highly standardized, almost fixed, serving a specifically narrow target. This means that at times of financial crisis, like most western societies are currently undergoing, consumers narrow their criteria down to value for money. Such a highly standardized product is strictly limited by its target, in our case examinations, so added value during servicing is overlooked.

As a result, the job description of the field, as defined by its name, ELT, has little to do with today’s reality. When the field was established, the conditions of its development dictated its formation. People needed to learn English, not only to enter a professional sector through certification, but indeed to be able to use English as a personal tool of expression. The latter is exactly what faded over the years due to false targeting. This loss dragged with it all the relevant factors and parameters, including qualified human resources, criteria of operation, methodology of servicing. Worse than all this, it has left whole generations of consumers not knowing what to expect nor what they need: the substantial product of ELT, a live tool of expression, so necessary nowadays in the immediate globalised economic environment. Influencing factors, including the State, foreign universities, publishers and associations have encouraged this phenomenon, both for the right and the wrong reasons.

Nowadays, Greece has millions of certified language users, the lowest exportability and investment rates in Europe, the lowest rates of cultural awareness, the biggest percentage of population that has never crossed the borders of the country and the worst national marketing and self marketing in the world. We might take pride in the fact that we have more linguists than France or Spain, but realistically, we need more communicational and self-marketing tools than those larger, richer countries. Instead of focusing on building these tools, we spend enormous amounts of money preparing armies of students for papers recognized solely by our country.
Bearing all this in mind, the need for differentiation of the product itself is obvious. A new and improved product will differentiate the field. It will allow the development of a new field within the field. The circulation of this new product will, in time, provide adequate tools to re-train the market. And then, just maybe, a new generation of opportunities will present themselves to schools, publishers and trainers, but most of all to language users throughout the country, allowing them to maximize their potential. It will take time, like anything. Good things always do.

15 August 2006

Welcome Sales

After monitoring a number of school development projects I have realised that there is a word that intimidates the average educator / school owner far more than terms like ‘finances’, ‘business’, ‘profit’, etc. It is the taboo word ‘sales’. When I first started talking about sales to my clients I came across looks of shock, confusion, negativity, even rejection. What would ‘sales’ have to do with a school, which offers education to young learners? Getting deeper into conversation, school owners would rather talk about ‘registration’, ‘enrolment’, etc. However, ‘eggrafes’ is the result of a whole procedure that I would define as ‘sales’ whether well-planned, random or even just lucky. The registration of a student is the ‘closing of a sale’.

I have dealt with lots of reactions from my clients about defining the term. The overall attitude was why, at the end of the day, should we adopt a term that sounds so disturbing and feels so incompatible with our educational nature and role? The answer is simply that words and terms determine our attitude towards procedures on a psychological basis. Terms act symbolically. On a more technocratic basis, lack of use of the right term has distanced the real nature of registrations as sales, from the art of sales. So much has been written, taught and designed regarding the art of sales that has never reached either the school owner or his/her staff, just because the most important time of the school year for the viability of the business, September, has never been related to ‘sales’.

Successful sales will define the success of our overall marketing plan, our business plan and most importantly, the viability and growth of our school business. Sales are related to marketing but are not marketing. Marketing is developed to support the overall identity of our school and communicate it, but at the end of the day, marketing exists to support our sales. Every well-organised company has to have separate procedures for sales and marketing, including separate budgets and resources. However, it is sales that will bring the customer to our business and make him/her commit to the initiation of co-operation, which at the same time I would call the ‘closing of a sale’. Below are the ten basic principles for successful sales:

1) Sales are not marketing: Sales are related to marketing and its tools (i.e. advertising, campaigns, etc.). However, marketing serves the overall identity and image of our business and is addressed not only to the target group of our activity, but also to the extended community that our target group belongs to. That’s why marketing has to be planned long-term, under the provision of a highly-controlled sequence of events. A sale is the individualised action, addressed directly to a specific potential customer or a small homogenous group of customers, and is interpersonal. The potential customer, whose interest has been adequately intrigued by our marketing, will then have to be dealt with individually, investigated individually regarding his/her needs and then convinced that our specific product is the right one for his/her needs.
2) A sale cannot be heavily standardised as a procedure: There is no recipe for closing a sale, as it is not only about the obvious needs of the customer to obtain what we have to offer. In highly competitive environments like ELT, it is also about the inner needs of the potential customer, such as his psychological need for comfort, power and security (COMPOSE). The individuals responsible for sales require thorough training to be able to identify the psychological profile of the customer and effectively respond to it.
3) A sale should not be based on assumptions about the customer’s perception: The potential customer, just like all of us, hates to contradict him/herself. People, by nature, are afraid to change their opinion on something, as such about-turns are often heavily criticised within our social and professional circles. It is vital therefore to constantly elicit approval and acceptance of our arguments when dealing with a potential customer. This brings him/her closer to us rhythmically and effectively.
4) Your argument is more powerful when it comes from the mouth of your potential customer: This is a safer but more complex method of making your potential customer commit him/herself to your business. Design specific questions that will elicit specific answers, describing your own product. Guide your potential customer to express his/her needs in ways that will reflect your competitive advantages.
5) Always have specific members of staff who deal with sales: Sales is a department on its own. People who deal with sales, whether administrative staff or teachers, have to be well-trained, skilled communicators. Invest in them in duration and you will see that added experience bears added value.
6) The key word for successful sales is good product knowledge: Your product is multidimensional. It is non-tangible, and as such is highly dependant on unforeseen conditions, the receivers of your service themselves, and overall the human factor. Train your sales staff profoundly regarding your educational programmes but also train them to show that your school knows how to make a student learn. Your product is not only the lesson, but also the successful student. State the obvious to your potential customer. Very few do it.
7) Never be a part of your sales force: You are the owner, the head of the business and educational system, the school policy itself. Sales are based on successful negotiations and negotiations are based on the principle that there are only winners and no losers. When the potential or existing customer deals with the business policy itself (you), there will definitely be a loser at the end and it is more likely that this will be you. Use your separate sales force as the filter between you and the customer. This gives a more professional impression to the potential customer, and gives you time and space to reflect on a problem before it reaches you. Then when you really need to deal with the customer yourself, after his/her first encounter with the sales person or team, you really honour him/her.
8) Be strict with the time management of a sale: Give your potential customer lots of time to talk and listen, to absorb what he/she hears, and to commit him/herself to his approval and acceptance of your competitive advantages. This means give lots of time when you are in control of the sale procedure. When this procedure finishes, control is then passed over to your potential customer, as he/she is the owner of the decision. When you reach this point, give as little time as possible. Do this gently and politely, but firmly and confidently.
9) Play ‘table tennis’ with responsibility as the ball: Give your potential customer the right to understand that this decision is very serious for him/her and that now it is their job to prove it to you. Pass the ball of responsibility onto them and show them that you understand fully that they know the best for their child. It is then and there that they will have to weigh technicalities (i.e. cost, distance, etc.) against the welfare of their child.
10) Prepare a sales action plan and train, train, train: Like every plan, your sales action plan and relevant resources should be evaluated after each sales period, and any necessary correctional action taken. Correctional action will affect both your marketing plan and your sales action plan for the sales period to come. Give your sales staff enough time to reflect on their performance, and organise appraisals. Enjoying the opportunity of only one (main) sales period per year, exploit the knowledge and feelings of your convinced and existing clients and incorporate this feedback into your annual training sessions. Most of all, never stop training yourself and your sales team. Customer trends and attitudes change constantly, as do your product and competitive advantages. Always be one step ahead.

My warmest wishes for successful sales.

15 June 2006

Promote English

Three years ago I started warning my clients and contacts in the field that we’re moving into a new era as far as the character and needs of the ELT field in Greece are concerned. We had already begun to talk about market saturation, institutional changes in the public sector imposed mainly by the EU, commercialization of the field and the “intrusion” of professionals from other fields. As I am writing, in 2006, all this has become a reality.

Very recently, at a dinner hosting both school owners and publishers, the sales manager of a publishing company was stating the opinion that the publishing industry is shrinking drastically, and that publishing companies are cutting down on investment while they have already started rationalizing the cost of personnel, most specifically their sales teams. The same manager was admitting that the junior market is shrinking faster than others, something that most school owners dread to hear. Also, that with the inclusion of foreign languages at the lower levels of primary state education, parents will start asking instead for more specialized services at higher (senior and exam) levels from private language schools, so it is the intention of most publishers to focus more on these segments in the years to come.

At the same time, with the big (dare I say overwhelming) variety of exams offered and recognized by the supreme council of personnel recruitment (ASEP), candidates feel more disoriented, and of course, so do their parents and teachers. And on top of that, an increasing number of state authorities are declaring their intention to exclude ASEP from their recruitment policies and adopt more traditional, but at the same time more substantial criteria, especially as far as professional skills are concerned (World’s Investor Sat. 6/5/2006).

To the above equation you add the sad 77% (hyphen 2005 annual market research) of Greek professional FL certificate holders who cannot speak English, thus shaping a disappointing international profile for the average Greek professional. Then it is easier to swallow that maybe this whole Greek ELT system, that has successfully served Greek insecurity and the need for formal (but not necessarily substantial) accreditation, is coming to an end.

With all the above in mind, the timely question of who is going to survive naturally pops up. As I have always said, what makes a good businessman is his/her ability to transform the vision of the business, and its services, according to the constantly changing needs of the market, but always based on his/her professional expertise. On the other hand, as I predicted at my annual market research presentation back in December, for the decade to come, business viability concerns only a third of the existing ELT businesses in Greece. The reason is very simple.

If schools cannot find an effective way to differentiate their services, profile, performance and targets from their competitors, the market itself already seems able to force Greek frontisteria to do so, fast, flexibly and effectively. By taking out of play a whole generation of school owners of retirement age, and a few thousand more frontisteria which just cannot meet the emerging needs of the saturated and commercialized market, that leaves us with only a third of existing businesses with the strength to face the biggest challenge ever in Greek ELT.

This challenge is called ‘educating our market’. It is widely accepted that nowadays, parents and students believe that whichever school they choose, the main aim of passing an examination will be met. Thus, the rising issue for us as businesses is: ‘Is this really the ultimate target of our school and its students?’ Will English as a foreign language function as a lively professional skill of a European citizen even if English starts from Kindergarten? Can the Greek state, or any state, provide customized training and orientation? Can the nine or ten locally recognized certificates (half of which are completely unknown on a European scale) accredit thorough users? Will the European Portfolio manage to stand out as a self-evaluation tool in the state sector, or will it prove itself to be more homework? And if none of these developments can ensure an outstanding international profile for the Greek professional (especially now that the Ministry is working so hard towards the promotion of a highly documented tertiary education), who is going to do this and how are they going to educate the market about their real needs and the vocational reality of modern Europe?

The ELT businesses that will survive the next few years will have nothing to do with the traditional Greek frontisterio as we now know it. I insist, and will keep on insisting, that to run a successful business, we must have something real to sell and this ‘something’ must answer the real and current needs of the market it services. If the market, due to a long period of disorientation, does not seem to know what its needs are, it is our job to identify them, point them out, explain them, and reassure the market that we are here to help. It is such a waste of time and money to state the obvious with our September advertising, the fact that we train students for exams and that our students will pass. There is no ELT business in Greece that does not deserve to state this honestly, and parents know it. What parents and students do not know is English. Even worse, they do not know how useful English is, and how late it will be when a new employer, somewhere in Europe, finds out, post-recruitment, that the certificate stated in a CV does not reflect real and existing skills.

What all good, viable schools need to promote and affiliate themselves with is teaching English. Teaching an English that can tangibly reflect on functional knowledge, learning targets and specific needs. But before they can promote this oh, so obvious service, they have to start teaching this English again. After all, once they have a real ‘something’ to sell, promoting it and regaining a lost market is accessible to anyone who takes their profession seriously enough.
issue, as the identity and reputation of the field depends on it.

15 May 2006

Institutional Competition

At the end of the academic year insecurity begins to gather about the September to come. Each school owner is thinking about promotional campaigns, numbers of new students, books and educational materials to be adopted, but also about their direct competition; other schools in the neighbourhood, chain branches, private lessons providers and even, sometimes, their own teachers.

I thought it would be useful to analyse here the kind of competition that threatens the average school owner the most. More specifically, school owners often report unfair competition through direct inaccurate information against their school, either through copying of their ideas, inaccurate exam results on competitors’ windows, and most importantly through competitors offering low tuition fees or even free courses. The truth is that none of the above behaviour can be directly dealt with, as either they cannot be proven, or, in the case of low tuition fees or free courses, it’s impossible to change the mind of a school owner, who, without a business plan and a specific strategy, has chosen a suicidal attitude towards the market, thus strangling the other schools nearby.

Why, though, do school owners, suicidal or not, choose such unfair approaches or low tuition fees / free courses to compete with the other schools in their area? As I’ve mentioned a number of times before in this column, effective marketing really means the development of, and communication of, competitive advantages. Aren’t there specific competitive advantages that any school could work on? Aren’t there solutions to make every school more attractive to parents, through developing a better educational system that parents would appreciate? At the end of the day, however, would parents actually appreciate any such possible competitive advantages?

This problem, which didn’t exist more than 15 years ago, has never been related to the ability of a school owner (or lack of it) to achieve a better, more effective marketing strategy or better service promotion and sales. I believe the problem has always been that school owners deal with the wrong kind of competition, i.e. professionals in their own field, instead of facing the real competition that has limited their growth potential to an all-time low; their own market, parents and students, their own representatives in the field, and primarily themselves, who neglect the most useful target of their profession: educating their own market about their role as foreign language schools.

This I call “institutional competition”. Eight out of ten schools we serviced in 2005 named as their number one competitor private lessons and low fees. These two factors are very significant in how the market perceives the ELT field. Our 2005 market research showed that the vast majority of parents with children in the ELT field believe that all private language schools do roughly the same job, probably using the same level and quality of materials and sharing a common exam success rate. It is not my purpose to analyse how true this is or not, but rather point out how it explains the market’s attitude.

If parents indeed believe that wherever their child goes he/she will pass the necessary exam and get the desired certificate, then how irrational is it for a parent to choose the school that is closest to home and furthermore, the school that is closest to home and cheapest? And how irrational is it for a parent to hire a private teacher who will come to the house and get paid much less than a school would?

Who has ever talked substantially to the parents about the pedagogical implications of the classroom environment, methodological issues, the running costs of a school, the reasons why some of them change teachers every academic year? Who has trained the parents to check the qualifications of a private teacher who gets paid only 4 euros an hour?

Is it maybe that all parents, excusably so, consider the private ELT field a necessary evil; an expensive substitute for the public sector that should really provide this service? Do they indeed feel it’s unfair for them to have to complement their children’s education with private tuition, due to the state’s inadequacy to provide good foreign language education? Does this resentment breed anger, leading to raw blackmail against the school owner, together with indifference about their child’s progress?

The truth is that no other public sector in Europe is doing any better a job than the Greek educational system, at least as far as EFL is concerned. Swedish public school teachers have never heard of the CEFR, which reaches them only as experimental workshops funded by European programmes through the local municipality. French students hardly reach a B1 level by the time they finish school. Italian students already define the biggest PET but not FCE market in Europe. The only difference lies with employment requirements. And the determiner in our case is the “recognition” of certain specific certificates in the public employment sector and thus in major parts of the private sector.

Parents are certainly not aware of these facts. They would also never admit that all they really care about is the certificate. They would never admit that a certificate defines the end of what I would call “constructive learning phase” and the time when usage training should start. Besides, that is why 77% of adult certificate holders cannot actually ‘use’ the foreign language.

Moreover, who can tell parents that things should be different, if things are really not that different? Could it be that school owners have identified themselves too much with the role that both the state and the parents / students market have given us, calling ourselves educators, but actually doing nothing more than following set publishers’ syllabi towards a specific certificate? Is it by chance that our national success rate at Proficiency is 29% when small, nearly unknown Latin American countries reach 100%? How can we fight institutional competition without redefining the actual phases of education through differentiating our role, something that we have the flexibility to achieve as private businesses? How can we develop our own competitive advantages if we do not, in practice, connect the foreign language as a skill with professional orientation?
When school owners choose my services for a better marketing strategy, I tell them, in honesty, that however much money a school spends on communication and advertising, it is more down to good luck, incidents (like a school closing in the area) or something temporary that will pay off any advertising investment. Learning targets differentiation will revalue the role of the trained educator, redefine tuition fees and payment terms, re-educate parents and clean up the market map, as at the moment, as we are all well aware, just about anyone can open a private language school. However, a massive nationwide campaign against institutional competition is not something that can be initiated by one individual or by schools in one area. This is truly a field

14 March 2006

The War of the Worlds - "School owners vs Publishers"

A few years ago, when I took my first publishing course back in Oxford, I came across possibly the biggest revelation of all in my ELT career. Creating books had always been, to my knowledge, a long process that required lots of research. Being a salesperson, then a consultant and later a commissioning editor and publishing manager, I realized that there’s far more than commercial criteria to be met through exhausting research when creating a book. The biggest pedagogical weight of a book is not only whether it meets learning targets, corresponds to word banks, exam requirements and grammatical structures and functions. Most of all, it is about whether it contributes to the educational, cultural and psychological needs of the learner, especially the young learner, through appropriacy, consistency and a vision to convey messages that will create healthy language users and citizens. That gave me a clear definition of the role of a good commissioning editor that most high quality publishers have on board.

It was, thus, a great surprise when I recently came across a couple of books in the Greek market, addressed to young learners, including or even making use of some hilarious elements. Without being puritanical, now that I have become a parent, I felt rather uncomfortable flicking through books with nudity or voyeuristic implications, references to drinking problems, wild youth, etc. Emotions of jealousy and intrigue between teenagers described or illustrated take us back to the times of “the bold and the beautiful” and other similar soap operas.

Taking a closer look it was not difficult to notice that the lack of knowledge of the art of fair and scientific publishing went even deeper, to educational issues. Consistency is non existent in many books, overlooking the widely accepted consolidation processes, while in some others, dryness and restriction to narrow frameworks of lists required by exams deprive students of any possibility to functionally and creatively perform.

Looking back at the books of several years ago, it is easy for the average educator to notice the deterioration of quality, spirit, creativity, novelty, but also appropriacy in terms of standard publishing and educational rules. Besides, most publishers today agree that there is nothing new in the market, everything is reproduced and books become sellers or best sellers only through effective marketing. Why is that? What has changed over the years, apart from the overall consumer attitudes and lifestyle?

The answer, one would think, lies in competition beyond any measure. The truth is that back in 1989, unlike today, there were a handful of publishers in the Greek market. When OUP, Longman or (the then) Heinemann for example counted a 10 to 25% market share each in the early ‘90s, nowadays market shares are narrow pieces of a big pie for everybody. Most publishing marketing plans focus more on freebies, free seminars, even business training nowadays, recognizing a rising need in the market that I’ve been dealing with for the past three years, and are exhausted through thousands of sample copies, many times never to be looked at.

All this is a very expensive investment. It creates more cash flow needs, which means more viability stress for the publishing company or branch, and of course more aggressive competition.
Most of all, it creates a need to more rapidly make publishing moves and launches into the market, which always weighs against quality. The average three years of research and development of a good book series was forced by, mainly Greek publishers’, specific practices and now you hear from 1 year of publishing preparation and production, down to three months from certain publishers. Research and development or production specialists disappear, and instead, well qualified teachers write, edit, proofread and sometimes even design, for little money and of course no copyright on their work.

At the same time, international publishers try to ensure more investment from mother companies abroad, based on unrealistic sales forecasts, deliberately designed so that they can excuse a decent investment in advance. Of course when actual sales figures pop up, the big drawback comes along, and incredibly capable people follow the “HR rearrangement trends” (HR = Human Resources).

I honestly believe that the crisis that is knocking on the door of the publishing world is not only due to the global economic pressures, but also to the lack of flexibility and alternative plans. For example, instead of basing investment on forecasts, one could base profit plans on existing resource controls and perform what the financial world calls “mainstream resources and profit maintenance” at times of risk. Thus, one could silently plan the big boom for after the times of crisis, invest in know-how and high specialization of HR, and most of all avoid quality sacrifices that might need to be overcome with lots of difficulty in the future, as the market seems to remember longer than we hope.

However, I truly need to point out that publishing companies are not the only ones to blame for the current situation. As independent, competitive companies, they follow restricting trends in order to survive. And I have realized that most of the time their market has reflected their own bad habits and practices onto them, thus disorientating them from good publishing.

A year ago I called together a group of school owners and directors of studies to a research focus group on behalf of a (then anonymous) publisher. We very simply asked for the elements they would require for a book at a specific level. We recorded all the feedback and created a brief to be seen by the focus group. To our simple question “would you adopt this book?” the unanimous answer we received was “no”. Although the brief was totally and seriously based on their own feedback.

It is no secret, at the same time, that school owners play with publishers, they trigger competition through gossip, information flow, asking for innumerable sample copies, asking to be bribed rather indiscreetly, and all other sorts of such favours.

I understand that this is the price of bad or superficial client management and training from the publishers’ side over the last ten years. I understand that this is a power show from the school owners’ side as well. Publishers have trained their clientele badly over the last years, and their clients, teachers and school owners, have learnt to depend too much on the book for syllabus design and teaching. Bad market and financial practices have led everybody not to be able to afford good publishing or independent teaching. Lack of money causes time constraints, lack of investment and finally a vicious circle of all the above. What nobody seems to understand is that quality is mainly defined by duration and that the viability of the Greek ELT depends on fair co-operation, fair feedback, and most of all on the fact that every small or big educational business in order to survive, develop and succeed, has to sell something. In fact, I’m not sure that most of them do any more.

I believe that quality has to be seen from a much wider perspective in the Greek ELT.

15 February 2006

A few good reasons against known business consultancy in the Greek ELT

After 3 years in the field of business planning and coaching the Greek ELT enterprise I found out that there are still areas that are open to relative interpretation and subject to diverse approaches. Our kind of activity started filling in a gap in the field and then grew and our needs grew as well, and then we started reaching out for more people. This took us back to our initial SWOT research which analysed the field of business consultants, so as to potentially trace the right specialists to join our team but most of all share our vision and our philosophy for the educational landscape in our country. This temporarily proved to be a fruitless and heartbreaking venture, but only because we had to adopt a different point of view.
Our field, with all the problems and drawbacks it suffers, is maybe one of the few fields bearing the highest Spiritual Quotient (SQ) of other professional fields in our country. That quotient cannot be served just with numbers and fancy promotional ideas.
In the past three decades, business and HR consultants have based their guidance only on measurable criteria and the use of them. Leaders’ IQ and EQ became the measuring tapes of inter-personal and inter-customer communication. Every business and marketing plan started with a SWOT analysis, Porter’s five forces, interrelated market research and financial and human resources analysis and projections. Traditionally a business plan also stated the vision of the business man/woman, but that ended up serving as the decoration only. The main axis however, has always been the competition and relevant competitive advantages against investment and profit.
From the moment we started researching other professional fields, along with ours, we saw that private ELT in Greece is the only field that professionals join not only to make money or just because they like this job. There is maybe the highest proportion of professionals that join a field because they really have a vision of what education should be, and want to make changes based on strong ideological foundations. Whether they know that they are joining a semi-recognised field or not, they soon understand that they are filling substantial gaps of the official educational system, while the foreign language exams and certificates were just the means to do so.

Business consultancy has a very clear purpose; to make the owner of a business conscious of the functions and pre-requisites for their business to grow profitably. This approach is based on two basic principles. The first is that sales are based on market needs so we should focus on how we can lead market needs effectively. The second is that profit is the ultimate target for the business and entrepreneur’s viability. The whole focus of these principles makes use of the variations between businesses in the same field to create communicative and competitive advantages.
In our field, however, all businesses offer the same service. All books provide the same learning targets. Also, in our field, needs, whether established or industry driven, eventually shape personalities. Education as a service or product breeds the market of tomorrow, but also the ethics, the dreams, the ambition and the effectiveness of our students in competing with more cosmopolitan citizens of other states in the big European melting pot.

What is it that could make a good business consultant too poor for the needs of a school owner? The answer is his/her lack of vision as well. However globalised our economy has become and principles of business viability apply to all sorts of enterprise, no business plan can guarantee viability of a school business if it doesn’t substantially bear in mind the personality and vision of the school owner. Measurable criteria must work towards the support of this vision and ensure inspiration of staff, students and parents involved with the school. Finance and marketing methodologies have to obtain a distinct identity reflecting the educator and the tens of generations that have been filtered through the school. Training has to become coaching and coaching has to become sharing and support. Most of all, especially for the educational business, business coaching has to take the form of life coaching. The parameters that recognize that the owner’s personality and the school reflect on each other have to become the corpus of each planner who then applies methodologies referring to targets, controls and correctional moves.
When reaching out for business support always make sure that:
a) Business and project planning are always followed by monitoring
b) An educational business plan always involves your vision and reasons for being in the field
c) You build on communicating your vision and finding out who are those that share it
d) You build on strengthening your vision and thus your messages to your local community
e) You face your financial figures as a tool that will empower your vision
f) You treat your business as a person that reflects your vision
g) You ask your trainer and then your coach to take you as seriously as their own vision for the field. Explore whether they have a vision
h) Your specialist knows your field from within
i) Your specialist defines quality with criteria that reflect on your students.

Bearing in mind all the above, I have already made the decision that all my forthcoming training sessions will start with reference to the experiment of the 100th Japanese Ape. The field has already reached critical mass and is strong enough to initiate the next historical change.