Private Schools: Can You Afford Not to Innovate?

Take a look at the marketing of any independent school worth its salt and it’ll tell you that the things which differentiate it from its competitors are things like academic excellence, a family feel and a very specific set of cultural norms which, let’s face it, are very rarely any different to its peers. Whilst most independent schools will profess to be innovative in their field – how many are delivering anything truly ground-breaking in the sector? Bursars these days do truly think like a Chief Operating Officer in terms of infrastructure but it’s really time that the education sector learned more from the business world when it comes to true innovation.

Think Eco

The word which independent schools should really be thinking about in this area is Ecosystems. In the business world, they reflect a true paradigm shift. Thinking more in terms of fluid networks which combine to deliver bundles of products and services in new and unfamiliar ways. It’s the future of how we will produce and consume.

Ecosystems have facilitated and resulted from changes in the ways we act as consumers. Who would have imagined, even a few years ago, that you would be able to pre-order coffee from your favourite café with your phone, or ask your music speakers to order you some kitty litter? Consulting giants Boston Consulting Group found that the use of the word “ecosystem” in large companies’ annual reports grew 13-fold in the last decade and that those who used it grew much faster than those who did not.

A New Way of Business Planning

As technology blurs the boundaries between products and services, producers and consumers, organisations and markets, it no longer makes sense to think in terms of traditional sectors and categories. Business purpose, strategy, organisational behaviour and policy will all need to be revised.

Customers have a far wider range of choice than they used to. When rigid sectors ruled, companies competed to deliver the same mass-produced product – but not in how the underlying service was delivered. Customers were in a pretty captive market and successful companies were those who upset their customers the least.

What’s the Real Benefit?

Now, however, offerings can be mixed and matched at the total convenience of the consumer. What demands emerge from how customers actually live their lives? Once you know that, you can start getting partners to team up and innovate around them. Many independent schools will talk about their partnerships with neighbouring state schools or local businesses and point to this as an area of innovation and a demonstrable public benefit. But are pupils really benefitting in an extraordinary way? And is the student and parent experience really so different to that of 10 years ago?

With the advent of the full Internet of Things and 5G, technological capabilities will only expand and so will the number of potential partners able to offer them. Schools really need to think about their two key audiences as 1) parents as high-end consumers with busy, time-poor lifestyles and 2) students as experiential consumers with identities across multiple technology platforms.

Manage vs Control

In their consumer relationships, both groups expect a seamless suite of services focused around their needs, not the offerings of individual companies that they must piece together themselves. There’s no reason that schools can’t be part of these lifestyle solutions for families and offer something truly innovative. However, to truly succeed, school leaders must be prepared simply to manage their ecosystems, not control every element of them. In the independent sector, letting go of control is hard – current leadership are often the stewards of decades or even centuries of tradition and will be damned if the ship loses its way on their watch. Looking to global business, even some of today’s celebrated ecosystem trailblazers found it hard. Apple’s iPhone only took off when Steve Jobs reluctantly opened up the App Store to outside developers, launching an ecosystem that now numbers more than two million apps and 500,000 publishers.

All of this chat about ecosystems begs the question: “so what exactly are the add on services in an independent school’s ecosystem?”. The vague answer for your own customers needs to come from the people who should know them best – your leadership team. This is why senior leaders should be taking time to consider this point in depth at away-days or training days. Ultimately, you must create narratives that extend beyond the tick box of what the students must learn and what you must provide, to start a life-long relationship with your students who will become your alumni and biggest advocates.