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McGraw-Hill Education’s CDO: “This sector needs a very different kind of innovator”

Stephen Laster featured as one of Hot Topics top 100 digital 'change agents' and explains why his sector's offering means any digital pivots need a particular kind of road map.

McGraw-Hill Education’s Chief Digital Officer (CDO), Stephen Laster, has been tasked with “helping transform the company into a learning science company” by using digital technologies to advance student and teacher outcomes.

It marks a shift in focus for the US-headquartered educational publisher, from a provider of “complimentary learning content and material, to a more digitally robust organization that uses adaptive learning techniques to improve teaching methods.”

The company’s digital manoeuvre follows on from many other brands today performing similar pivots.

Operational activities, services, products, platforms, databases and even employees are all getting the digital treatment, outlined by their respective CDOs.

McGraw-Hill is in a slightly different position in that many of its core activities were already digitally enabled, meaning Laster’s role is less about initiating change, and more critical to improving momentum for the brand.

CDOs, in general, are expected to initiate digital transformations of varying scales throughout their tenure – but usually they create quick wins early on to help draw support for their longer term plans.

Not so for Laster, who doesn’t subscribe to that ideology.

“It is actually a false dichotomy. The question isn’t long term versus short term, the question is opportunities versus ideas; opportunities are actions you can take to market to create value, but ideas are just dreams that are hard to sustain.

“Put simply, you need to to build value added software that fulfils opportunities into the market quickly, and then iterate your way through change.”

His strategies do not work along annual reviews as “there is no such thing as yearly cycles, only road maps” which can be at odds with conventional ways of how CDOs operate.

This could be as a result of Laster’s past at Babson College where he taught and acted as Director, Curriculum Innovation and Technology, and where he was “deeply influenced by people like Jeff Timmons and Dr Stephen Spinelli – godfathers of entrepreneurship and innovation.”

They, and others, shaped his understanding of how innovation and technology combine with strategy to drive sustainable changes within an organization, he says.

McGraw-Hill Education presented an opportunity for Laster to put these concepts into practice in an industry that promises much by way of being digitized.

The education sector in general is, “undergoing enormous change because it is under tremendous performance pressure,” particularly within North America, where McGraw-Hill Education’s operations are headquartered.

This pressure catalyzed educational publishers’ instinct to digitize quickly.

“[McGraw-Hill Education] had some great digital products in the market three and a half years ago, and I was fortunate to have that as a running start. So what I’ve done is to create a singular, unified, road map in terms of our digital footprint and capability out of a disjointed one.”

The early digital phases had “different product lines doing wonderful things,” but all acting separately and without cohesion which Laster identified as a major weak spot.

His unified road map plan required the company to understand the “varied personas we serve” to develop a set of technologies that could be shared across their needs, freeing up space, time and energy so “our engineering resources can drive deeper into R&D rather than maintaining a vast, disconnected map.”

Three years ago the company operated with around 100 employees, which has now grown into 500 full time staff with an extra 500 part-timers forming 72 teams based around the world.

His next challenge was how to negotiate the wider education sector.

There are seemingly a number of things to balance: “costs are an obvious issue at the moment, and globally education is about driving student access and performance within every stage of the learning process.”

“We are in an awesome moment in time when technology is maturing within the network, the device and the software, meaning the promises of edtech are brighter than we’ve seen before.

“There is an immediacy for us to serve that opportunity; short and rapid cycles with focused product development and great services to help our teachers understand the digital change that we’re all embarking upon.”

Whilst teachers may understand the journey ahead, it’s the students that need to act upon it.

A high proportion of North American students fail to graduate from their studies on time – in fact, only 19% of full-time students in public Universities in the US earn a bachelor’s degree in the allotted four years, a report from Complete College America found, meaning they incur large amounts of additional debt.

“This crisis is the largest in higher education in North America and we know, through research, that if students complete their degrees they go on to pay back student loans and enjoy vibrant, productive lives.

“Our task is to support learning to help develop their skills to help them be successful in that core curriculum, to help drive completion rates and make a real difference.”

This, however, is a different beast which other sectors don’t always see.

Digital transformations can, amongst other changes, enable brands to provide a faster, easier and more seamless experience for consumers to improve services or products, or simply their browsing habits.

Education is different: the services and products provided by McGraw-Hill Education supply an intangible, highly complex and incredibly personal learning journey that lasts a lifetime.

This requires a different kind of innovator and a different kind of CDO.

Laster explains that CDOs have “to be very powerful and pragmatic innovators, building technology that we not only have to understand actively, but ones we have to teach them how to use and weave into their curriculum, helping them to gain knowledge and capability.”

Laster’s opportunities, rather than ideas, and digital road maps, as opposed to yearly cycles, are being created to solve these challenges directly.

There will be parts of McGraw-Hill Education that will “still rely on analogue or print where needed,” but Laster will continue to drive and mould the digital transformation that his brand started over three years ago.

The next three years have been included in his digital road map which “we update every six months,” but he then doesn’t want to answer questions about his plans further away “because in technology it’s a bit of a fool’s errand.

“What I would like to do is keep a very vibrant and flexible road map that is tightly tuned to where my market is, and what my market needs. My career so far has been one based on results and opportunities, and that’s how I like to leave it.”