Listen above or read the full transcript beneath, which has been edited for clarity.
Jon Kennard: Welcome to the first of our learning and skills focus podcasts for UNLEASHcast. It gives me great pleasure to welcome and, also for me, welcome back as this is the third podcast series that we’ve done together, Kate Graham. How you doing?
Kate Graham: Not our first rodeo, Jon, I’m really delighted to be here. So thrilled that we can do this for UNLEASH.
JK: Yeah, me too. It’s really great to launch this. We’ve got loads to talk about, even though today we’re actually gonna only be talking about one story, but it’s kind of a combination of a lot of things. And it’s certainly a trend that we’ve seen in the industry over the last few months. And that’s about mergers, acquisitions and, and funding rounds, essentially. One story from Allie Nawrat, who is our recruitment and talent lead, and she wrote a story in the L&D ‘pillar’, as we call them. The headline was ‘2021 was a record year for edtech deals‘. Did it feel like that for you, Kate? Was it a record year?
KG: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think it’s just gone kind of bonkers, really. It’s been building for a long time. I remember working on an article for Fosway (my old employer) back in, like, 2012. And it was around like Oracle buying Taleo, and these kind of big deals that had gone through in that sort of traditional ERP (enterprise resource planning) space. And I would say it hasn’t slowed down at all, since then.
But, as our CEO and leader Marc Coleman says, COVID-19 has just been an accelerator for so many things. I think it’s just driven the market into new heights. And it feels like every week there’s a new unicorn you know – the funding and then the M&As as the demands of the buyers and the organizations have evolved. The providers, and the vendors have needed to diversify their portfolios, and often it takes just too long to build stuff from scratch. So, obviously, acquisition is an easy way to go. I don’t think it’s going to slow down at all.
JK: I think there’s some interesting ways to cut this cake of funding, with one of the most interesting being, statistically, that there have been fewer deals. There were 1414, in 2019, and there were 972 in 2021. So there’s fewer deals, but they’re bigger deals. So this speaks to a consolidation in the market. BrightEye Ventures was the company that put these stats together and did the research, and it found that in 2020, and 2021, in those two years, there was as much funding as the previous five years, so that’s what we’re looking at.
KG: I mean, obviously, you can’t accurately predict anything, but it feels right, if that makes sense. It feels like a very educated prediction in terms of the direction of travel. So yeah, I think it’s gonna keep your editorial team busy for plenty of time yet to come.
JK: It’s also interesting that the focus here is on edtech, because it covers two distinct areas, we obviously focus on corporate learning and development and the HR side of things, but for edtech as a whole, especially as most of the deals are US-based, we’ve got BetterUp securing $300 million, degreed $153 million, and Handshake, a career planning company, $80 million.
A lot of these things, though, cut across the higher education or education and higher-ed market, as well as corporate learning. And certainly the pandemic, as you’ve just said, is something that’s accelerated all this and is applicable right across the spectrum of age groups, right from from, I don’t know, 10 or 11 years old, as you go through school, you’re going to be remote learning all the way up into the workplace.
KG: We’ve both got kids in school, right. And, we had to go through the whole homeschooling thing. And the ecosystem, I think, for schools is pretty shocking. On the whole, they’re obviously they’re doing their best and there are limited budgets, but it’s very clunky. There’s very little integration. However, I bought my son a Chromebook for his birthday and he set himself up with Google Classrooms. He did it all. He knew his login password from from school, it just doesn’t faze him. It’s just completely how he’s used to doing things because they use it at school as well. And I think that sense of navigating different systems and different apps and all the rest of it is really interesting as that generation comes into the workplace.
Because we spend so much of our time in HR tech talking about employee experience and having experience layers, something like ServiceNow that goes across everything, and helps people surface things without having to go to a specific system and know where things are, as the next generation comes up, that may be less important. Or equally, it could be more important. I mean, in the short term, I think that’s definitely going to be the direction of travel. There are so many different silos of systems and specialist things and navigating your way around that ecosystem can be completely overwhelming.
And I just laugh about the school stuff, because I sit there and I work with learning technology and HR technology for a living, and I find it overwhelming sometimes. So I just think it’ll be quite interesting.
That whole piece and the way that they learn, it’s just natural for that generation to learn this way. But if you look at organizations, they’re still going through digital transformation. I had this conversation internally with somebody at UNLEASH earlier. And they said, you know, is the transformation ever done? And I just think, no – the implementation times are going to get quicker, the pace of innovation is increasing all the time. And that will ultimately keep driving all of this activity, the funding and the M&A it will just keep perpetuating.
JK: There’s going to be so much to talk about, and like you say, it’s only going to get quicker.
I was gonna limit it to one story, but I just thought we had to talk about this before we go – I’m throwing you a curveball, Kate, I can’t resist talking about this, because it’s too big. It’s too important. This is about ByteDance. The owner of Tiktok decided to shut down its talent development department in December. It didn’t come out for a while we published this story on January 31. But it’s a rather big deal. It’s a very popular app. Some of the quotes, some of the comments they made about this department and its lack of efficacy really, really are hitting home for a lot of people. We’ve seen people we know, Andrew Jacobs, for one, blogging about this and making some really, really good comments about what people can learn, what learning and development people can learn themselves about ByteDance’s decision. What did you think?
KG: Well, I mean, some of the comments from ByteDance are absolutely savage. If you’re running a very traditional learning development function, I think the takeaway is a little bit ‘be afraid’, right? There’s some pretty tough comments in there. One of the quotes, “doing things for the sake of doing things where the actual value is limited and questionable”. That was one of the comments, which is pretty savage. And let me just see if I can find the other one. Feel good initiatives?
JK: Oh it gets worse. It’s “feel good initiatives that are self indulgent”, I think is the quote.
KG: Oh, I mean, that is not where L&D wants to be, right? She says, stating the blindingly obvious. But it was really interesting because I posted a story on Twitter and got lots of reaction and like you say, Andrew Jacobs, Nick Shackleton-Jones, lots of people picked it up and had something to say about it. But I think it echoes what people like David Perring, who I used to work with at Fosway have been saying for a long time.
And that is if if you’re not connected to the business, and the value proposition isn’t there, and the performance piece isn’t there, it’s not about return-on-investment, per se, but you know, it is that impact piece that you will have in danger of just being seen as something that ticks a feel-good box. And that’s kind of terrifying.
So, I think the kind of the move to repurpose a lot of the talent development team elsewhere in the business is an interesting one as well, because does that signify a shift to learning and development becoming more and more decentralized, and, you know, part of business functions? Potentially it makes it quite difficult to deal with, if everything is decentralized. So yeah, it asks more questions than it answers, that article.
As somebody said to me in conversation, it’s hardly surprising that an organization that is pushing short video clips is not going to be that interested in – or the culture is not going to lend itself that well to – things like formal courses. There’s probably a lack of cultural fit with a lot of traditional norms. If you think about other organizations where, you know, you have to take people away from a production line, or a shop floor, or whatever it might be, they need to carve out time, they can’t just learn in the flow of work, they can’t just watch a video every time they need to do something. You’ve got to formalize and carve that time out. And so I think there is a massive element of context in there as well.
JK: There is, definitely. I also quite like the quote, or thought it was quite appropriate: “…many learning events, such as online sorts of mediocre quality with over 1000 people, which could easily be found on the internet”. A great piece, high profile, definitely one to make L&D sit up and think about what they’re doing.
KG: I think sometimes we have to hold up a mirror. And, you know, we don’t always like what we see. And I think it’s not all doom and gloom, there’s so much good work going on out there. And some of our audience that we speak to and the people that we’ve had on webinars in the last few months, there is some really inspiring work going on out there. Linking skills to internal mobility, fighting the fact that the labor market is an absolute nightmare. There is lots of reasons to be cheerful, but I think it’s definitely one to show that we can’t rest on our laurels. For sure.
JK: Okay, that was the first learning and skills focus of UNLEASHcast, there’s gonna be plenty more. so good to be back in the podcast saddle with you Kate.
KG: On to the next one. What a joy. And obviously, if there is anything that you’d like us to particularly cover, I would say just get in touch, hit us up, because this is all about the audience. We want to talk about the things that are important to you.
This is the first in our ‘learning focus’ series, but there are more…