The headquarters of publisher and education provider Pearson on the banks of the Thames in central London used to be one of Winston Churchill’s World War Two offices.
Churchill apparently used to smoke his cigars on one of the roof terraces during air raids, watching the Luftwaffe as they tracked up the river, the city itself shrouded in darkness thanks to the blackout.
There were no warplanes in sight when V3 met Pearson CTO and COO Albert Hitchcock, just the dazzlingly bright September sun. And Hitchcock himself may not have a war to win, but with a huge digital transformation project currently underway, there will be many battles ahead.
“We’re transforming the business in every way through the use of technology. When I joined the business a little over two years ago, it became quite evident to me in a short period of time that we had an incredibly complex tech estate because the company had grown through acquisition over many decades, and had acquired a very diverse set of businesses,” he said.
Simplifying and unifying
Pearson effectively ran as a holding company for a set of federated businesses. This strategy changed when current CEO John Fallon joined three years ago and the decision was made to bring the company together into a more recognisable corporate structure with enabling functions.
But this change needed to be facilitated by technology. The company was never going to come together as a single unit while it operated a dizzying array of separate systems.
“The technology landscape in the firm mirrored the old way of working, so we had to fundamentally change the way technology served the business,” said Hitchcock.
“Within a couple of months I created a technology strategy that basically looked to radically simplify the business, and enable efficiency and cost reduction. At the same time we recognised that the digital customer experience was really the thing that was going to drive the top-line revenue growth.
"It became evident that we needed to bring the customer-facing and product technology strategy together with the enterprise and systems-enabling strategy.
“We did that, and I inherited the digital product development group in the same time period. We didn’t want to look at these aspects of technology differently, but all together.”
So the vision for a single IT architecture for the entire company was born from this strategy, built around the idea of creating a set of enabling platforms.
Part of this vision is to deliver all of Pearson’s education content and services via a single platform in a push to become what Hitchcock described as the “Netflix of education”.
His vision is to stitch together the group’s existing education services under one platform using APIs. The company currently operates a diverse set of education services via a large number of different platforms, most of which require separate access credentials.
This is a result of the firm’s long-term growth via acquisition, and is something Hitchcock is working hard to change.
“In the past we created separate digital products that have been very successful in their own right, but they’re unique instances of products. Now the approach is to create effectively a single platform,” he said.
“The analogy I use is to be the Netflix for education. We want to create a single platform to deliver all educational content and services, irrespective of the age and stage of the pupil.
“The other aspect is to make that platform very future-proof, to create a micro-services, API-based architecture that enables us to deliver all of our customer experiences through that single mechanism.
“Much as you would consume movies through Netflix, or buy services through Amazon, we want education to be delivered through this single, quality user experience, but available to all ages and stages of learners.”
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