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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 1 · Episode 9

Lessons from the World’s Learning Company: Set A Strategy (and Never Waiver) with Pearson CTO & COO

Albert Hitcock, Pearson CTO and COO, shares how COVID has not impacted Pearson strategy, but has accelerated higher expectations from the digital consumer. He shares his journey and advocates that we should be bold, question everything, and be forward in all that we do.

Published November 10th, 2020  |  23:28 Runtime

Episode Guest

Albert Hitchcock

Albert Hitchcock

CTO & COO at Pearson

View Bio

Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling billion dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax with more than 20 years of experience working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth. 

Albert Hitchcock, Pearson Chief Technology and Operations Officer helps shape the future of learning by transforming how Pearson delivers learning content and assessment for millions. Previously, Albert was group CIO at Vodafone and prior to that was global CIO at Nortel. In this episode, Albert teaches us why he thinks culture is the biggest opportunity in a company's transformation journey. Learn what he's doing to create a fun, immersive and 3D learning experience at Pearson. Albert shares his personal evolution and advocates that we should all be bold, be forward and question everything.

Chet Kapoor: Albert, thank you very much for joining us today. Really excited to have you on the podcast.

Albert Hitchcock: Thanks Chet. No, it's really good to be here and looking forward to the conversation today.

Chet Kapoor: You've been at Pearson for six years and before that you were at Vodafone, that's quite a transition. As you think about your journey, what do you think has come easy? And then part B is what do you think is hard?

Albert Hitchcock: It's a really interesting question, because you're right. I work most of my career in telecommunications because prior to Vodafone, I was actually at Nortel networks for 14 years. So my background is actually hardware engineering. So I came into sort of IT and software later in my career. I then went into a service provider. Vodafone is one of the world's largest service providers and is about 400 million customers.

Albert Hitchcock: Then I went into sort of publishing and then moving publishing into the digital era has been my role in Pearson. And I'm also on the board of a Nationwide Building Society in the UK, which is one of our biggest banks over here. So it's interesting that you can work in different industry verticals, but the same challenges are still there, they're still present. And I think every company is trying to move to be a great digital business right now. And digital customer experience is at the center of a lot of the success of the companies right now. It doesn't really matter what industry you're in. And so I think to your question, what came easily, honestly, I'm a technologist so I would say that the technology relatively has been the easy bit and actually the technology allows us to solve very similar problems across those different industries.

Albert Hitchcock: What is hard is always the people's aspects. It's the culture, it's the ways of working, it's have you got the right talent. Have you got the right experience in the organization to transform it. And each of my roles has been in organizations that have wanted to transform themselves, have been rapidly transforming. And it's always the people element. It's the culture, it's how you change people's thinking. It's how you embrace a new type of culture. Particularly, as we move to competing with digital-native organizations that have only ever known the digital world, trying to get a traditional business to look and feel and behave like a digital-native business has been the biggest challenge. And that's where I spend, honestly, most of my time, when it's being the same here as it has been at Vodafone, trying to get the organization to adapt and change, to look more like a digital business and to be a successful digital business is where the challenge is honestly.

Chet Kapoor: On the people side, is it just a combination of having a clear vision, having a strategy and then mobilizing people to get there? Is it plus bringing people who actually have a perspective and have experienced doing transformations or people who don't and just have a fresh perspective?

Albert Hitchcock: I think it's a combination of things. I mean, I don't have a sort of a single playbook, but I can tell you that it's a combination of bringing in enough new blood and thinking that instills confidence in the journey ahead. So, people who've seen what great looks like or what good looks like and know how to get there, to help the existing employees and the existing leadership have confidence that the direction we're taking is the right direction. That's one element. I think dogged determination, getting a vision and just having the resilience and the sort of dogged determination not to let go, right? Just keep driving it. I mean, one of the things about my peer group, CIOs, CTOs, is they tend to go into companies for a relatively short period of time, like one or two years, right?

Albert Hitchcock: It's the average lifespan of a CIO, it's not long enough. I mean, if you're going to start the journey and you're going to do a company wide transformation, it's a five year journey plus, right? In most cases. And so, you've got to have someone, and I've tried to do this, is to set a strategy at the start and don't waiver. I mean, it may not be a 100% right and things change over time, but keep the key tenets of your strategy and your plan consistent and keep drumming it, the organization on the straight and narrow. Keep it focused on the end goal and don't waiver, I would say. So it's very much a marathon, not a sprint and dogged determination is a key part of it.

Albert Hitchcock: And then I would say the other thing is talent, right? You've got to have enough talent, particularly in your technology organization to drive this change. And it's not just about technology talent, right? It's about understanding how digital business works, how digital business runs, how to be an effective digital company. And you need your technology leadership to have business leadership skills and acumen as well so that they can talk the language of business leadership to drive the change. It's not just the technology changes, a whole company changes. You need digital leadership that embraces technology, but also the business as well.

Chet Kapoor: How important is it as you go, and you've talked about Pearson's digital transformation in moving to a single platform similar to one like Spotify or Netflix. I keep thinking about the support from the board as well as the support from the folks that really get it. And everybody in between is actually working in transforming, but you need unwavering support from the board as well as for all the people that are in the midst of the transition. How is that coming along?

Albert Hitchcock: I've considered myself very lucky and soon after I came into Pearson in 2014, I had a number of engagements with our board that were incredibly positive about sort of aspirations to take the company forward, to be a digital native business, effectively a platform business. Now, not all the company understood it at that time - what it meant to become a platform business. And we've learned that journey together, honestly. It was an aspiration at the start. It was not something we had a concrete plan around and we created the plan and we've had that dogged determination to implement it. And actually it's come about that, that plan was the right plan. That becoming a platform business in our world is really an incredibly important thing to do because we have an aspiration of getting online to billion learners, right?

Albert Hitchcock: And there's no way you could address a billion learners with a traditional business model. The only way you can do that is through a platform. And the reason that the sort of inspiration from Netflix and Spotify came about was this notion of a single platform delivering a content based experience to every country in the world, right? Potentially, every citizen who wants to engage can engage. And our vision is to do the very same thing but in an educational context, right? If we can get a billion learners on our platform, if we can help to rescale society, that's our end vision. Our platform construct allows that to happen. And of course underneath that, there's the sort of the technology. We build on microservices, it's in the cloud, it's on AWS, it's in multiple availability zones around... I can go on and talk to you a lot about the technical facts of it.

Albert Hitchcock: But at its core, it's a single platform, a fantastic, engaging and fun learning experience that delivers great outcomes for people and allows us to impact society in a big way. That's the sort of the vision. And the board has been behind that from the start. And I've had a lot of support from the CEO and leadership. And the exciting thing is that that vision is now come about. We have the platform, it's implemented, we're launching new products and services on it and it's scaling up. And that's the exciting thing that you can see that what was just a sort of a vision on the back of a piece of A4 is now something that we've built and implemented and is now real.

Chet Kapoor: I'm a big fan and a student of platform economics because a lot of people, when they think about platforms, it just generally comes down to the stack, right? Everything going through a technology platform, but a platform business as you've said a few times is hard to pull off, right? And especially as you are re-engineering your entire business right around technology, as well as the business model itself. And I think it's something that we should definitely come back and talk to you more about. As I've talked to many companies who are transforming, the issues are the inertia of the current business model and the people parts, right? The technology pieces are hard, but it's not the biggest issue. Would you agree with that?

Albert Hitchcock: I completely agree. I mean, that's exactly what I said a little bit earlier and I think the people and the culture and the ways of working and the operational model and the organizational construct. What the org chart looks like in most traditional businesses does not suit the model of a digital-native business. So moving from becoming digitally enabled to digitally native is a hard thing to do. And that involves all of the people aspects, all the cultural aspects, all the ways of working.  Between ourselves and our key partners and our learners and our consumers and our faculty and content creators, and authors and employers. And to create that sort of flywheel effect between all those constituent parties within this sort of education ecosystem. And you need people who've had the experience of doing some of that stuff because it's very counter-cultural to traditional business models and you were sort of alluding to that. We've got to bring in the thinking behind how to do some of that stuff. And that's where my job gets exciting. Once we start putting all those things together and we start creating that flywheel.

Chet Kapoor: Moving a little bit to the technology aspects, education is changing. I had a chance to work at Google and re-skilling is a massive, massive problem as you said earlier. You've talked a lot about AI and its role in transforming education. Give us your perspective on it and what your vision is.

Albert Hitchcock: I think we see AI helping us in a number of ways, candidly. I mean, we're using AI for our customer service function. So robotics and using chatbots. And so AI is helping us become a more effective digital enterprise. So that's a key and important factor. AI is helping us to create a view of the learner, right? It's helping us create a learner profile and understand your aspirations, understanding what you want to do, understanding what you're looking for. So we've got this notion, we call Pearson Pathways, which is about helping a learner figure out what are the next steps. How do you get a career in robotics? How do you become a software developer? How do you become a lawyer, right? If we can help to put some of the constituent pieces together to help you deliver your goals, right?

Albert Hitchcock: And ultimately to get employed. If you want to get employed, how do we connect all the dots between all the courses you need to do, the accreditation's you need to do, the skills development you need to do and then can we connect you with an employer? Can we connect you with a school who can then connect you with an employer. So building out that pathway digitally for you, AI is going to play a very important role there. And then thirdly, AI will allow us to really personalize the actual engaging education experience. And so we've moved from delivering textbooks to students and professors. The first phase of what I call digital transformation in education was putting the textbook on the glass, right? But the world we're in now, is we're way beyond that. We're into the engaging 3D experiences that are highly personalized, much more akin to sort of playing a computer game.

Albert Hitchcock: And I've hired a bunch of guys from the gaming world, from Electronic Arts and Zynga and these sort of companies because they understand how to put together fun, immersive, personalized, engaging experiences. And so can we create courses that are highly personalized to engage you with the richness of a computer game, but rather than playing a game, you're learning stuff, right? You're learning stuff, it's going in, in-depth. The pedagogy is part of this, the learning science is part of it, but it's a fun, engaging experience. And we're going to prove to you that you're going to learn skills faster, doing it that way than if you were reading text.

Albert Hitchcock: And I think that's the next phase of this journey, which is putting AI at the heart of the learning experience and using it to create these experiences are beyond what we currently imagine in education. They're the next stage on, and they can be consumed on your mobile device anywhere you are. And they are a really important and engaging experience because they're going to take your life to the next level. They're going to take your career to the next level. They're going to allow you to re-skill. They can allow you to get that next job, the next career move, etcetera. So bringing those things together is how we see AI for the future of our business.

Chet Kapoor: That is so awesome and so exciting. One of my big taglines, when I was doing this at Google, was we should learn the way we live. And there's always been a gap, right? We live differently. We play computer games. We have apps that are personalized for us and things like that, notifications, all that. But the learning platform, the way we learn is still getting transformed and trying to catch up. And everything you said is so exciting to see that we are going to start learning the way we live. That's when it becomes a lifelong journey of learning rather than, I'm going to learn until I'm 22 and that's it and maybe I'll take a course when I'm 35, right? It becomes a lifelong journey.

Albert Hitchcock: Exactly. You've used the words out of our strategy, really. I mean, we're very focused on this vision of lifelong learning and can we capture a student when they're a young person and be their trusted advisor all the way through their life. Because as people live longer, they're going to want to have multiple careers, potentially, they're going to do multiple things. So we want that persistence. We don't want to lose contact with you once you've finished your high school exam, or when you finished your degree. We want to build up a continuous journey with you and we want that ability to be able to help you on your path, right? So that's why we were talking about the sort of the Pearson Pathway to help you continually re-skill and learn new things. And it should be a fun experience, right? It’s not something that you don't want to get rid of when you finish your course. This is something that you'll want to engage with us going forward. And that's all part of that, making that experience really engaging, really important and fun so that we continue that engagement with you.

Chet Kapoor: COVID-19 has certainly accelerated the trend of online learning. All right. What is the impact that you've seen on the EdTech sector and have you had to make some adjustments to your strategy based on it?

Albert Hitchcock: It's been really interesting because I would say that it's not really affected our vision or our strategy, but it's probably brought it forward, if anything. It's definitely accelerated the demise of print. It's accelerated the demise of the physical book, I would say, particularly in education and in an educational context. And it's driven the adoption of digital. It's driven the adoption of digital courseware and is driving the adoption of online proctoring, which is the ability to take tests remotely rather than having to go into a physical test or examination center. And I would say it's created a higher expectation for the digital experience. There's no doubt that consumers, and I would include educational faculty in this regard, have had to learn to build digital muscle in the last few months. Even people that have been reluctant to engage have now figured out how to use apps on their mobile phone and figured out how to use Zoom, and have figured out how to use Teams.

Albert Hitchcock: Figured out a lot of, sort of the basic digital muscle. And that's created both the desire to do more, but also has created an expectation around the quality of the experience. And of course this is very true for every sector, not just in my sector. But you look at the digital natives, the likes of Amazon, every one of us use We all use Netflix, we all use Spotify, we use Uber, we use all of these apps. It's created a baseline expectation that the rest of the traditional models have to reach that baseline capability, right? Because that's the sort of baseline but then you have to do a lot more on top of that. And so I think it's raised expectations, it's accelerated our strategy, it's caused the further demise of print that some of the... what was important for us a few years ago, is still important today, but we recognize that that's not part of our future.

Albert Hitchcock: Our future is a digital future. So it's accelerated that transition in a way, and it's caused us to rethink what's going to be the new reality. What do we need to be working on now to sort of satisfy the needs in the coming months and years. And we're doing a lot around making sure we're building in scalability because we're anticipating much higher volumes. We're building in resiliency, how do we get to this next generation of experience, much higher grade, higher caliber experience. And that's both in hygiene terms. Things like eCommerce has to work really well and really effectively and scalable, but then the experience of learning and how we personalized that journey for you and those experiences. Even more emphasis on that. Even more focus on that. So it's accelerated, it's creating increased demand and increased expectation of quality and capability, I would say.

Chet Kapoor: We had an outside firm do a survey for us for 1,400 enterprises. One of the questions we asked was what is accelerating your digital transformation? Is it your CEO? Is it your board? Is it the CTO, or is it COVID? And 75% of the folks actually said that the biggest accelerant is COVID-19.

Albert Hitchcock: It's raised awareness of the art of the possible, honestly. I think if you'd have asked the majority of CEOs before COVID, could 80% of that workforce or 90% of that workforce work effectively from home. I think the majority would say no, right? And I think if you ask them the question now, 75% probably would say, "Yeah. Pretty well." I mean, I think we've all got a desire to get back together and have a level of interaction and be back in the office. But honestly, none of us, I don't think can be back full time, right? I think we're going to move to a very different model. And I think that same dynamic has called into question a lot of our existing business models, right?

Albert Hitchcock: Those business models are under huge pressure to change now. And certainly for us, luckily, our strategy has been very much, for the last five years, move to the platform, move to digital, move to great online experiences, move to delivering fantastic educational outcomes. So that bit, at least we got that bit, right? I think we got it right. So if anything, COVID has just brought that more into sharp focus for us and got us to think about accelerating that vision in many ways.

Chet Kapoor: So it's very clear, Albert, that what inspires you is getting to a billion learners. If you had the same opportunity many years ago, and this opportunity was presented to you to lead a company through this transformation to get to this inspirational goal, what would you tell a younger version of yourself?

Albert Hitchcock: It's a really good question. I think probably anything like this is a little bit personally risky. You sort of have to stick your neck out a little bit and make some calls around how you think the future vision is going to look like and putting your opinion forward. I think when I was younger, I lacked confidence a little bit. I've never been a particularly pushy guy. I've always tended to be more of an introvert than an extrovert. You wouldn't necessarily find me on the stage reciting a sort of a future vision. But I think I would tell myself to be a little bit more confident. I think young people have a huge advantage in the new era of businesses in that they live, breathe and experience digital every day.

Albert Hitchcock: And none of us older guys, I mean, I'm lucky I've spent my 30-year career, over 30 years within technology, so I'm probably a little bit more akin to it. But a lot of people who run businesses don't understand this digital stuff, right? So they rely on young people. They rely on younger leadership to have an idea about how to drive the business forward. And so I think if I was talking to my 25-year-old self or my 30-year-old self, I would say, don't doubt, right? Don't doubt yourself, put your ideas forward, be outspoken, question. Question why things are being done the way they're done and be bold and outspoken about your belief and the chances are you're right. The chances are, if you live in the digital world, what you're saying is going to be the right things.

Albert Hitchcock: And we as older leaders in our organizations, we have to listen to young people, right? The chances are what are they saying, a lot of what they're saying is absolutely right. And we don't want to be too blinkered. We need to be open and receptive to listening to our younger employees without a doubt.

Chet Kapoor: Well, Albert, this has been an awesome conversation. Really, really enjoyed it. Thank you very much for joining us.

Albert Hitchcock: No, it's a real pleasure, Chet, and thank you for your time and look forward to having further conversations.

Narrator: We hope after listening that you have some new ideas on how to make a fun and immersive digital experience, no matter what industry you're in. And don't forget, stick your neck out by being confident and don't doubt yourself while you're doing it. Be bold and outspoken. 

Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests with phenomenal stories to come. So stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released and feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at