Pearson CEO Shares His Road Ahead

column | Enterprises

Pearson CEO Shares His Road Ahead

How John Fallon hopes to grow the world's biggest education company

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Nov 13, 2013

Pearson CEO Shares His Road Ahead

Pearson, the world's largest education company, its CEO John Fallon suggests, is still more or less a teenager.

That means Fallon's job is to apply the discipline it needs to grow more. What's more, he's got just the tools to do it. (News update): Pearson published its "efficacy framework" on Friday. Here's a link to the document.

That news came during a wide-ranging conversation that Fallon led with a team of EdSurge writers during a visit last week to San Francisco.

Pearson had the equivalent of an exuberant childhood, beginning in the late 1990s when it gobbled up many education businesses. Now "we're shifting from inputs to the educational process to how we can help deliver results," Fallon said, choosing the careful language of an executive in the spotlight.

Translation: under Fallon, whose father taught math, Pearson wants to measure gains in learning not just financial returns. Led by chief education advisor, Sir Michael Barber, Pearson has created an "efficacy framework"--a set of tools for assessing if the conditions are in place for an education program to deliver its promised learning outcomes, which it plans to share publically.

The efficacy framework has been at least two years' in the making. Pearson has already used it internally to review almost 100 Pearson programs and since January 2013 is requiring the efficacy review for any product of more than $3 million or any proposed acquisition. Elements of the framework include analyzing the data sets produced by the activity, interactions with stakeholders and whether there are clearly defined outcomes and a path to achieve those outcomes. "We're not just looking at a research-based approach, but thinking in a more systematic approach."

"We're using the word 'efficacy,' deliberately" Fallon said. "It's a horrible word but a beautiful idea." Just as doctors seek specific outcomes when they treat patients, so, too, should edtech seek a specific outcome.

Fallon pointed out that Pearson has recently stopped publishing textbooks in 10 countries "because we didn't think we could add value." He pointed to that shift as one consequence of applying the principles behind the efficacy framework. (Fallon did agree, however, that old-fashioned business principles might have also played a role in that particular decision.) He cautioned, not to expect quick fixes: "We're on a path--it will be five years or more. But we are committed to being open about our journey."

Use of the efficacy framework hasn't yet cancelled a project, Fallon said. "But it's changing product development," he added, in part by increasing the importance of data analytics in product. And Pearson has opted out of investment opportunities because they didn't measure up when assessed according to the framework.

As a signal of that openness, he added, Pearson aims to publish the details of its efficiacy framework, as well as being more open with code and APIs. "What we hope is the efficacy framework is owned and shared widely," Fallon said. "And that [other practitioners] will shape it as we go."

The company is also taking more conventional steps: It's in the midst of what Fallon described as "the most significant restructuring in a decade or more. "We will have fewer people doing publishing--but publishing will still be a significant activity for us." He adds: "If you think we have a degree of schizophrenia because of the divide between digital and print, well, it is in response to our customers."

Pearson is knitting itself together, losing the distinct bands of the companies that it has acquired over the years, Fallon said.

And with that growing maturity, that desire to craft a coherent and focused company from the mass of acquisitions, comes a bigger opportunity, Fallon suggested.

"If you are primarily a textbook company, then you win or lose that market. If you think 'How do we help achieve learning outcomes?'" potentially at any time during a student's life, then the opportunity is broader.

"That's a big culture shift for us as a company," Fallon said. "It won't happen overnight. But if we are to prosper and grow, then we have to enable others to prosper and grow, too."

An excerpt from the efficacy framework:

Pearson's efficacy framework asks that reviewers assess a product or strategy along a dozen points:


  • Intended outcomes
  • Overall Design
  • Value for money


  • Comprehensiveness of evidence
  • Quality of evidence
  • Application of evidence


  • Action plan
  • Governance
  • Monitoring and reporting


  • Internal capacity and culture
  • User capacity and culture
  • Stakeholder relationships

Editor's note: An early version of the story said that the efficacy framework has not affected Pearson's investment strategy; in fact, Pearson has opted out of potential investments that didn't meet the framework's criteria.

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