Thursday 13 February 2014

I do not believe you when you say you know "that company"

I spoke today at the snappily named BESA SATSIG. It's a UK edtech special interest group, and also a very nice bunch of people who offer excellent sandwiches and wine at lunchtime in exchange for a lively and mutually interesting chat. I like groups like this.

However, as they each introduced themselves, it brought home to me just how much I still have to learn about UK edtech. These are solid, decent-sized businesses, yet of the thirteen present, I knew nothing at all about six of them, a little bit about five, and a good amount about just two.

Now, there are two conclusions you could reasonably draw from this. The first is that I am in no way qualified to call myself an expert in edtech (and you'd be right). The second, and the one I want to focus on in this post, is that people's knowledge of their own sector is often scarily limited. The problem is particularly acute when it comes to something as dizzyingly fast-moving as education technology.

Here is a summary of what I often hear people say about companies, and what I think they mean when they say it:
  • Oh yes, I think I know the name. Oh no, I do not know the name, but you said the name so enthusiastically I really feel like I should know the name. I hope I remember to google the name later. What was the name again?
  • Sure, I know those guys. I walked past their stand at a trade fair. I vaguely remember their logo. There were no free pens, so I didn't linger. With hindsight, perhaps I should have lingered. 
  • What they're doing is really exciting. I don't really know whether what they are doing is exciting, but I'm chuffed that you mentioned a company whose business model I can just about explain.
And so on. Anyway, my intention is not to poke fun at the ill-informed. I know I've bluffed before - it's a natural human instinct. My point is that the sector is so young, and evolving so fast, that we should all feel confident enough to admit what we don't know. 

Also, the knowledge gap is inevitable just from the sheer number of players in the sector. There are 822 products currently listed on the excellent EdSurge Edtech index. It's US focussed, so I have some justification for not knowing them all. But given that I work with education data, I feel like I should at least know a bunch of the 26 US data systems they list. So I tested myself. This is how I did:
  • Know nothing: 22
  • Can tell you what it does: 2 (Clever, Learnsprout)
  • Have actually been in touch with them: 2 (Schoolzilla, Ed-Fi)
Not great, is it. If you'd have asked me before I undertook the exercise, I might have claimed that I knew a bit about the US education data landscape. In fact, it turns out what I mean is that I read Edsurge and Techcrunch sporadically, I've read Driven By Data, I've spoken to three helpful edtech investors, and been in touch with two actual US data companies. Bully for me. That's tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. So: time to start googling the other 22...