"Daydreaming" with Middle Brother and Mountain Man
Thoughts on education, startups, and storytelling.
5 key insights from Clinton Global Initiative, from my perspective as one of the few tech VCs at CGi the past four years.
Good post on Clinton Global over on Medium - Taylor’s points around the imperative to open up CGI’s data and how that data platform could fuel impact investing are right on. But I’d go farther than Taylor in my critique: there’s a reason CGI remains closed, and it’s because so much of the data is unverified or pure vanity.
I attended CGI’s annual meeting a few years ago after drafting the commitment being made by the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), the nonprofit where I was working at the time. From what I saw and heard behind the scenes, CGI doesn’t have the interest or the resources that would be required to ensure that its members are setting meaningful goals that they are prepared to deliver against and rigorously track. As a result, the commitments can easily turn into social enterprise at its worst - an entrepreneur poster-child, a generous promise of support, and a branding victory for the sponsor amid the applause. The corporations (and even the nonprofits) avoid the hard conversations about their business models, and we all walk away feeling good about the number of digits on those checks and commitment cards.
In a way, Taylor’s post says it all: “In 2013, CGI members made over 160 new Commitments, valued at over $10.8 billion when fully funded and implemented. Since inception, CGI members have made over 2,400 commitments, valued at over $80 billion when fully funded and implemented.” Frankly, who cares? Why does it matter how many commitments were declared, or even how many vaccines were donated? The numbers that I’d love to see sound more like “child mortality rates reduced by X percent” or “X acres of forest reclaimed and preserved.”
To be fair, CGI invites members to report back on their commitments, and I don’t mean to suggest that those billions have all gone to waste. But it would be great to see the organization orient itself with more discipline around the kinds of true outcomes that change lives.
Earlier this month Quartz published a great piece on why "Media companies have failed in the education business - but there’s still hope". At first the article resonated:
It’s not hard to understand why media executives think education is a logical extension of their brands. As news industry analyst, Ken Doctor, puts it, the media and schools are “just two ways to do the same thing: Gain knowledge. Media may be well suited to new educational roles,” he believes, because “it’s what we produce—information and perspective, building blocks of learning.”
I’ve worked in both media and education, and I’ve seen those overlaps. Day to day, my job as a product manager for executive education at General Assembly looked remarkably similar to what an editor covering technology, business, and design would do at a magazine targeting corporate leaders.
But when I reached author Todd Tauber’s analysis of why media companies have so far struggled to succeed as education providers, his pat explanation - different customers, different capabilities, different businesses - felt incomplete.
So what’s the real story?
Over the years, media became “mass” media because it got very good at the expectations game. If you train millions of people to pick up a newspaper every morning and you build unassuming practices such as the lowly dateline into your product, then you can deliver content designed for “mastery” at scale while catching up those who may have missed a day or two. In short, your audience arrives with roughly equivalent knowledge and generally modest learning objectives; as a result, you’re well positioned to satisfy. And perhaps just as important: if a reader or viewer returns from a long vacation, or has a doctorate in the topic that you’re headlining, the onus is on the customer to look elsewhere to further their learning. That outlier customer isn’t going to dock you for failing to deliver on your brand promise.
In contrast, customers expect educators to diagnose their learning needs, and then guide them down the individualized pathway that leads to mastery. That was true of students in the proverbial one-room schoolhouse looking to their lone teacher, and it’s still true today of the students arriving at campuses and logging on to MOOCs. Moreover, education may still trail media in its overall adoption of technology, but the expectation of technology-enabled customization has quickly taken hold among parents and students, and will only accelerate.
I don’t mean to split hairs with Tauber; I think he means for his argument to encompass this difference. But as I’ve seen things play out, customers’ expectation for individualization is the primary reason that media companies are badly positioned to tackle education. Media is very good at creating content driven by deadlines and publishing schedules; the governing ratio is pages per month, words per day, and so on. Shifting to think in terms of “per student” will require more than a change in customers, capabilities, and businesses - it will require a shift in culture. Only those media companies that can re-orient their content around individual customers will have a fighting chance in the education business.