An Interview with Rachel Sumner
Connecting learners with innovative experiences at Pearson Online Learning Services
Every month we will be featuring stories of forward-thinking Innovators, and share their insights into how to transform organizations and the ecosystem around us.
Rachel Sumner, Regional Partnership Director at Pearson Embanet, shares with Highline BETA how she is enabling others to realize their economic potential through the design and delivery of learning experiences intended to enhance employability.
When I look back at my career, it is a number of dots that I now, with the power of hindsight, am able to connect, and that lead to my decision to join Pearson Online Learning Services.
I trained as an economist originally, and was a market analyst for Unilever in my early career. We exported into emerging markets that weren’t yet big enough to have local production. I was given a view into parts of the world that I’d not been privileged before then to visit. What started to bubble up for me was that I was passionate about people’s economic agency:
Everybody is born full of potential. If we leave that on the table, they lose out, society loses out, and the economy loses out.
From Economist to Educator to Entrepreneur
At Unilever, I realized that one of my strengths was my ability to gather information, and then share it with others to facilitate deeper thinking and the development of strategy. I came to realize that I wanted to do that in a bigger way, and went back to school and trained to teach.
What I learned quickly is that unfortunately, the curriculum prescribed by UK examination boards that I was required to teach didn’t align with the kind of skills, competencies and knowledge that I felt young people needed as they began their careers in business. So, I began to ask:
Was there another area of the education sector where I could have more impact and help people better realize their economic agency ?
Through a period of exploration I began to understand that the opportunity I was seeking was more likely to be in Higher Education. Wanting to learn more, I chose to undertake a graduate degree in curriculum design and the future of work to try to bring these two pieces — education and economics — together .
For a time I taught at the local business school, in Bristol, and came to believe that the way Higher Education approaches the design of business curriculum is inherently flawed. The sector has a supply-driven approach: it typically focuses on the faculty and the great research they are doing, and then creates courses around their strengths.
I thought instead we should be considering the needs of the local businesses, and of national employers. I pitched the School on this new user-driven approach, and was challenged to run with it. I was given a course as a sandbox to play with, and began to develop a new model for engaging students, faculty, and other stakeholders.
Through this experience I became a kind of translator between industry and business schools — two groups which, I came to learn, really don’t communicate well with each other. We focused on leveraging the strengths of the business school to meet real needs in the labor market.
I ultimately created a consultancy career focused on bridging this gap. For 15 years the work I was doing and the impact it had on students propelled me to do work across Europe, in Asia, and in North America.
From Entrepreneur to Intrapreneur to Entrepreneur and back again…
Along the way, I took a few jobs because they provided enough learning and enough opportunity to interest me. Each time I would step in for a year, maybe two — and then would typically go back to consulting again.
But when we moved to Canada, I joined Pearson because of the impact I thought I could have. Today, I’ve been with Pearson longer than I’ve been with any employer since my Unilever days.
Yes, as an Entrepreneur, I have much greater autonomy to act and to be of service to my clients. Because I am the entity they’re contracting with, I’m the one responding to their problems, and that enables me to make decisions and act more quickly.
As Intrapreneur, I serve the client on behalf of my employer. The decisions are not entirely my own. Yes, I’m responsible for the profit and loss for these relationships, and Yes, I’m responsible for the performance of the teams that serve these partners. But when you’re accountable to more senior leaders, who are accountable to the board, who are accountable, to our shareholders, it’s a very different way of being.
But what brought me to my current role as an Intrapreneur is this: I have access to expertise and resources that I would likely never have as an entrepreneur. Alone, I could work with maybe one, or two, or maybe even three business schools at a time. But I could never do anything of the magnitude that Pearson can, simply because of the capacity and capability that they have built to enable their business model to scale.
I’m responsible, with my boss, for the partnerships that we manage from Toronto. We support multiple individual programs that are impacting thousands of learners every day.
This job has enabled me to scale my impact in a way that I was never able to as an individual consultant.
However, I do remain curious about whether there is an alternate ‘model’ that could be built. This model would combine the autonomy, responsiveness and service orientation of entrepreneurship with the access to expertise and resources that intrapreneurship can offer.
Pearson Online Learning Services is a great entrepreneurial success story. It was a startup in Toronto that, eventually, through a myriad of different iterations, ended up being bought by the world’s largest learning company, Pearson. 10 years ago they launched one of the first three fully online MBAs in the US.
But the landscape has changed. Today are more than 200 fully online MBAs, and close to 150 of those have the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation (the North American ‘Gold Standard’). It’s an entirely different marketplace now.
The university partner we launched that first program with approached us, and together we decided
“We really need to come up with something, together, to get above the noise in the marketplace.”
But even once you’ve agreed, it’s more about the how. How do we do that? How do we work together to reimagine online 2.0? How do we leverage our partnership to discover the best path forward for the institution, for Pearson, for educators, and most importantly for students?
There was a huge motivation as a business to solve this. Not a bespoke solution just for this single partner, but for our other partners across the board. They were saying to us:
“We love your model, and we see it’s been successful for a decade. But what’s next?”
One of the processes that has helped us, is capturing the story of our users and sharing that with others.
At Pearson, we have become experts at telling our quantitative story. We’ve got more data, more metrics than you can possibly imagine. That was one of the things I was so curious and fascinated about when I joined. But one of the things I think we have an opportunity to do better is telling the qualitative story– to our clients, to our stakeholders, to our executive team, and to our board.
To kickstart this, we did a week-long design thinking activity on campus with one of our partners. We had students with us for a week. We had alumni with us for that week. We had employer voices represented in the room. We had faculty and administrators.
One of the powers of that week, down on campus, was it was completely unfiltered. Students sat across the table from somebody who taught them, two courses ago. Or alumni, who are now five years graduated, sat at a table with somebody who ran their capstone for them.
That, all together, is in the data set that we use — and it all starts from empathy and forging those connections. I think we could continue to do that more regularly, more effectively.
A systematic approach to tackling innovation
The opportunities to serve the market are constantly evolving. But the approach I take now as an intrapreneur recognizes and harnesses this pattern: I tend to work on a four-year cycle.
Year one is typically discovery.
A deep exploration of the business model, the team, and understanding the market environment. Corporations build themselves boxes which become a constraint over time —
So, I to start to kick at the walls of the box.
I question the box. Try and turn the box upside down. Call out the box. Still recognizing the strengths — and there are always a lot of strengths — but using my status as a relative newcomer and my connection to recent external market experience to call out and discover its failings.
Year Two for me is typically then about starting to act purposefully to build and execute on strategy.
I’m now starting to rattle the box that the business has built.
In my second year at Pearson I did a lot of writing of white papers and working directly with our partners to ensure we understood their real problems. I then brought that back to the business and used the client (institution) and consumer (student) voice to persuade internal stakeholders that we needed to do things differently.
Year Three has been about charting a path forward, now that we believe we know what we need to do differently.
The questions we’re tackling are: How do we prioritize that? How do we secure the investment to do it? What resources is that going to require? What are the risks associated ? Who are the clients that we should be serving first in this way?
Year Four is that decision point.
Securing the opportunity to do that with a variety of clients and executing on it. I trust my team here, who are all talented in their respective fields will execute brilliantly on the new strategy.
Advice for myself at the outset of my career
I always wanted a job that would consume me. I never wanted a 9–5.
But early in my career, I felt constrained by the job description. I hadn’t given myself permission, quite honestly, to go beyond the job description, and I didn’t have bosses who encouraged me to do that.
I never felt like I had the scale, the scope, the bandwidth, the opportunity to do enough. And so I was never satisfied.
I also confused the stupid stuff — job title and salary and other things — with the things that would truly allow me to have an impact. Once I gave myself permission to go beyond the ‘job’, to learn and grow, my ability to have an impact grew exponentially.
I think if I could talk to myself then, what I would tell myself is:
1. Do the work. Understand the kind of stuff that lights you up, because you’ll know it the moment you hit it.
Let go of the anxiety about why work isn’t feeling the way it needs to. If you put the work into figuring what it is you want to be doing, the rest just falls away.
If you’re out front, you really are going to get hit first. But frankly, if you are living your passion, your purpose, those arrows just bounce off you.
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