At the BETT 2013 conference in London last month I wandered into a closed program, “Grow Your International Business: Meet the Buyers” organized by UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) for British ICT firms. UKTI is roughly the equivalent of the US Department of Commerce’s Commercial Service. At tables spread around the large room buyers, agents and resellers from more than 30 countries were engaged in short get-acquainted meetings with UK ICT company execs. Before being politely asked to leave, since I wasn’t with a UK firm, I learned that some 500 such meetings would take place before the program ended. I asked myself “Why isn’t this happening for US edtech companies at our major trade events?” and decided to try to find out. The answer isn’t pretty. If we want a bigger share of the fast expanding global education markets we’re going to have to make a fuss about getting UKTI-type support on this side of the pond. Here are the top 5 ways the British are besting us at this game. They’re all significant but the fifth is a knockout that made me gasp. See if you agree.
Over the past several decades the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), co-sponsors of the UK’s two major educational markets trade shows (BETT, focused specifically on educational ICT, in London and the Education Show, focused on furniture, supplies and print, in Birmingham), has built close relationships with UKTI and other British organizations fostering export trade. Dominic Savage, Director General of BESA since 1984, sits on a variety of government committees and working groups on education, particularly in relation to new technologies and international trade. He is the Chair of SAGES, the UKTI Sector Advisory Group for Education and Skills, founded the BETT exhibition in 1985, is a trustee of World e-Citizens and is currently Chair of TVET UK. He is the Director of the Education World Forum, the largest gathering of education ministers in the world. He received the distinguished Order of the British Empire (OBE) designation in 1997 for services to education. BESA. William Prieto-Parra, International Manager, one of a handful of key BESA execs, is focused on supporting members’ export trade.
Don’t get me wrong. I love our trade associations and their international initiatives. While our US edtech associations engage in international activities from time to time, none are wired into government in this way or have staff dedicated to supporting export trade. ISTE’s annual conference has traditionally drawn some dozens of international attendees, including some vendors interested in exporting to the US education market. Don Knezek, ISTE’s former CEO, had a passion for international activities and tried partnering ISTE with a few off-shore conferences but nothing stuck. Plans for an International Trade Forum at ISTE 2012, to bring international education buyers and policy makers to the conference, were shelved late in the planning cycle and not revived for 2013. At least one ISTE staff person who’d been supporting its international activities has been let go.
CoSN has run a number of small international missions, more about informing US school CIOs of best practices in other countries than about promoting export trade.
SIIA’s Education Division’s special interest group in international markets provides periodic webinars on various export markets. SIIA also runs an excellent annual networking breakfast at BETT for US companies attending the show. But when I inquired of a senior SIIA exec about who the right people were at US Commercial Service to talk to about ICT export support, the answer was “Let me know if you find out.”
AEP has organized missions and pavilions at the Frankfurt and Bologna Book Fairs for years, and has dabbled in other international events. The 2012 AEP/AAP CIC conference’s International Markets Forum (IMF), which I chaired, was its first event dedicated to bringing together US and international executives to explore partnering in global markets. For the 2013 CIC the IMF is a truncated event focused on “making the transition from print to digital.” Neither AEP nor AAP have staff dedicated to growing export trade.
Both the US Commercial Service and UKTI offer export support programs to connect domestic companies with international partners. Julie M. Osman, Senior International Trade Specialist, US Commercial Services, and a member of its Education Sector team, outlined the “partner programs” as follows. “These are: the International Partner Search (IPS) and the Gold Key Matching Service (GKS). The Commercial Service’s International Buyers Program (IBP), the equivalent of the UKTI’s Meet The Buyers (MTB) program, such as the one at BETT, brings international buyers to US trade shows. It all sounded very good until Osman said, “No Education Sector shows are IBP.”
The cost of that yawning gap between what UKTI offers UK ICT firms and the Commercial Service offer us becomes more apparent upon closer examination of the UKTI programs. Linda Lally, Deputy Head Services Team, Trade Development Group, UKTI, generously fleshed out their programs for me,
This US overseas trade show support story sounds good too until you learn there are no edtech industry programs. According to Glen Roberts, Director, Bakersfield & Fresno U.S. Export Assistance Centers, US Commercial Service, the Commercial Service’s Trade Fair Certification program is one of several ways US firms are supported in participating in overseas trade events. It’s a cooperative arrangement between private-sector trade show organizers and the U.S. government. Roberts explained, “Participating U.S. companies benefit from expanded services and personal support to find their next export deal. Certified trade shows can get support of a US pavilion offering participating firms discounted exhibit space. Trade associations, American chambers of commerce, U.S. agents of overseas fair organizers, and other private sector entities that organize and manage international fairs overseas are eligible to seek certification to organize a U.S. pavilion.” Julie Osman added, “In addition, we do webinars, virtual education fairs and country specific trade missions to give firms the opportunity to learn more about these markets and how they can translate into export opportunities.”
UKTI is no slacker in this arena either. Linda Lally explained, “We also have the Tradefair Access Programme (TAP) where the company may get a grant of £1000, £1400 or £1800 towards their exhibition costs. These events tend to be ones where a key trade partner (such as Trade Association) would deem this event important for their sector so the trade partner would act as an Accredited Trade Organisation (ATO) responsible for supporting the UK companies at the Fair/Expo. The ATO would get a management fee from UKTI to manage the companies at this Show (branding, delegate brochure, local promotion, networking reception, etc). They would also be expected to write a report on the UK presence at the Show as part of their role as ATO. With regards to sending UK companies to trade events, we can support them as part of a trade mission through a modest Market Visit Support (MVS) grant towards their costs from their local International Trade Adviser in the region of the UK which is closest to them. Also, there is SOLO Show support. This is given to companies where there is not TAP support for a Show (i.e., key industry does not recognize a particular event but some individual companies believe it is important for their business. These may be niche exhibitions, or little known ones.”
What? Educational technology products aren’t in the purview of the Commercial Services’ Education Sector’s focus? Strange but true. According to a senior official of the US DOE with whom I talked, the reason that educational technology gets short shrift from the Commerce Department is that according to Commerce’s coding scheme, educational technology falls in the “software and services” sector, not the education sector. But all of Commerce’s education market expertise and champions are in its Education Sector team. In fact, what the Education Sector is mainly about is helping US educational institutions--colleges, universities, private and prep schools--recruit foreign students to their US and overseas programs.
Understanding this explains why the Commercial Service’s web site features free market research on global student recruitment (e.g., the Education Sector’s “Best Export Markets” report is exclusively about student recruitment) but none relevant to ICT. Julie Osman confirmed this, “The bulk of our work is on student recruitment, not with products.” Highlighting this, the Sector’s recent Virtual Education Fair, using the Internet to connect US exporters to overseas agents, was organized to connect US Boarding Schools to prospective resellers in Vietnam. These are typically limited to 6-8 schools nationally using a webinar format with PowerPoint slides and audio format. When asked, Osman said she was “not aware of any product-related virtual programs.”
The British have two powerful drivers for growing their export trade. First, the UK education market is a fraction the size of the US market, so achieving scale leans heavily towards selling abroad as well as domestically. Second, the elimination of the Blair Administration’s generous support for educational ICT a few years ago has made the UK market an even tougher slog. By the same token, these sorts of drivers may be keeping export trade as a secondary goal for many US firms who see the domestic market as a big enough target to justify full focus.
You don’t have to look far to see how the Internet, increasing global trade, and the advancement of countries like India, China and Brazil to First World status, to see that the world’s education markets are on a non-stop trajectory towards globalization. The stakes are way too high for the US educational technology industry to accept second tier status from our government agencies. Share your ideas with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check with me too about a HellerResults trade mission to Virtual Educa in Columbia June 17-20 aiming to expose delegates to opportunities across Latin America.