Digital transformation may be an overused buzzword, but it's a real opportunity for companies to increase market share and gain competitive advantage. On this episode of CXOTalk the CEO of McGraw Hill, Simon Allen, explains why digital transformation is important and how his company is executing its transformation strategy.

McGraw Hill is 130 years old and one of the most recognizable brand names in publishing and education. Watch the video and read the transcript to learn more about how a CEO views digital transformation.

The conversation includes these important topics:

Simon Allen was named CEO of McGraw Hill in October 2019. Previously he served as President of the company’s Higher Education and International business units. Simon has deep experience in creating educational content and technology tools for improved teaching and learning outcomes, and extensive global knowledge of institutions across higher education, K-12, ELT and science, technical and medical markets.

Before re-joining McGraw Hill in March 2018, Simon was the CEO of Macmillan Education, leading the company’s transition from print to blended learning products and solutions. Previously, he was Senior Vice President, International at The McGraw Hill Companies and during that time was elected President of The Publishers Association in the U.K., serving for three years on its council. 

Transcript

Simon Allen: It's easy to say you understand the customer, but we have millions, tens of millions of customers around the world. Hundreds of millions when you combine our activations on platforms and print unit sales, et cetera.

Every customer requirement is a little bit different. That's what makes this business so wonderful and so interesting.

On digital transformation at McGraw Hill

Michael Krigsman: We're talking about digital transformation with Simon Allen. He is the president and CEO of McGraw Hill.

Simon Allen: We've been around for just over 130 years, known as primarily a wonderful content, textbook company, and we've transformed over the last few years to become now really a very direct education company that focuses on our digital materials, our digital platforms.

We have around 4,000 staff all over the world, passionate individuals dedicated to our mission of helping educators, helping students learn in the best way that they can, and providing tools to teachers and professors around the world.

Michael Krigsman: As CEO of the company, where do you spend your time and your focus?

Simon Allen: I have a wonderful leadership team, Michael. I've got ten direct leaders that manage our four business units.

If you think about the learning lifecycle, if you like, as a continuum, we have our pre-K to 12 business, we have our higher education business, we have our professional education business, and also an international business that encompasses all of those units around the world.

I spend my time with all those individuals. I've been in the business for 36 years – in fact, it's 36 years next week – with a company that is now part of McGraw Hill. Because of that luxury, I believe, (and privilege, too) I feel like I know the industry and the sector rather well. I should after that length of time. Let's be honest.

What I find I do is spend time with my leadership team and then also I drop down into various individuals right down to the salesforce where I spend (during the semesters – at least if I can) two or three days a month (certainly, pre-COVID) working and seeing our customers as often as I can. That's the only way, Michael, that we can really understand what they need out of us, from us.

We're here to talk about digital transformation. That's how we know we're on the right track is when I have the opportunity to work with my colleagues and just listen to what our customers want to say.

On digital transformation and empathy for customer experience

Michael Krigsman: Can you tell us what is that linkage between listening, understanding customers, and your employees and digital transformation?

Simon Allen: The connection is making sure that you understand not just what's possible but what's going to be useful and usable.

There is a huge amount – and your listeners will know this. There is a huge amount you can do with technology today. Much of it is all wonderful, but how much of it is usable and useful?

If you think of the teaching community, you're thinking of grade school teachers. You think of university and college professors. How much are they actually going to utilize that will add value to what they do every day? How much can we provide digitally that will save them time? That's a key component. And also, what can we provide the students that will help them in their learning journey?

That connection between our employees understanding that, me understanding that, and the connection with our customers is critical that we're very, very closely engaged and involved with them, and we have regular symposia (seminars, if you like) with our core customers, and we drill deep with them over many days at a time to really understand what do you want us to do, what do you want us to create, and how should we innovate. Rather than just what's possible, what is usable and useful for you?

On the digital transformation of operations and processes

Michael Krigsman: That's a very interesting and important point because there are times when you speak with people, one speaks with people about digital transformation, and they'll say, "Oh, yeah. You know we're putting up an e-commerce website." But for you, it is far more basic, fundamental business and customer issues that you're actually thinking of first.

Simon Allen: Yes, it's a lot more than just putting up a website. Michael, you're right. You have to think about the science of learning. We call ourselves often a learning science company, and by that we mean the need for us to understand how students learn, how professors like to teach using technology to enable those students to learn.

We like to think about adaptive questioning processes, algorithms that allow us to adapt for the student's learning journey. We can direct them into any number of different directions depending on what they've just answered.

The complexity with what we have, that's one of the reasons that, within our structure, we have a dedicated digital platform group that we set up around nine years ago now. That's staffed by a couple of hundred people, brilliant software engineers, obviously a core part of McGraw Hill's structure, working across our business units to make sure that we understand again what is possible, how we can innovate, and what we can provide the students and the faculty and all of the teaching community to help them.

That's the critical element. It's again what is useful and usable for you that will take your journey faster for students and really help the teaching community use the right tools.

On innovation and digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: Simon, you use the term innovation several times. Where does innovation fit in when you think about digital transformation at McGraw Hill?

Simon Allen: Innovation to me means creativity. It means thinking about opportunities and potential products that have never been created before, including where teachers and faculty members have never even thought about something that we are thinking of developing and launching.

We have a particular product I have in mind that I will reserve the right to get into too much detail because obviously, it's sensitive, but we have a wonderful K-12 product right now that we are developing for the teaching community that will enable them to be very, very directly engaged with their classroom performance, utilizing data in a way that will really help them understand how students are performing and where the teacher themselves can also perhaps change the way they're thinking about their class to make sure that we manage the problem of retention where our intervention tools, our products that enable students to stay in the classroom, are there and they're prioritized.

There are many products now, Michael, that we talk to our customers about where they say, "Wow, I'd never thought about that. I never thought that we could use this kind of material." That's what I mean when I'm saying innovation.

I think everyone understands the digital transformation and a concept, particularly also from a content company now to a digital platform company that McGraw Hill has become. But when you think about true innovation, you're thinking about ideas that your customers have probably never even considered.

Michael Krigsman: That's why, when we talk about digital transformation, very often it's discussed as placing the customer in the center.

Simon Allen: Yes, and that's exactly where the customer—

Frankly, that doesn't make any difference, digital transformation or a basic analog company. The customer always has to be at the center.

I remember going back to my repping days, believe it or not, in Dallas, Texas. I know I don't sound like that, Michael, but it's true. I spent three years trolling around north Texas talking to faculty, professors. I was in the higher ed group.

Even then, well before people thought about digital transformation, you are talking about your customers, putting them front and center with everything that we create. When you're curating and developing content, it doesn't matter in what form. When you're doing that, you do it based upon what the customer needs to see and understand.

When you're developing supplements – and we've seen a huge transformation in that over 36 years – you do it with your customer absolutely front and center.

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On the politics of change management

We have a number of questions that have come in on LinkedIn, and so why don't we jump over there? The first one is from Kevin Kieller. He says, "How is McGraw Hill affected by this increased level of partisan—?" he doesn't say politics, but basically the desire to filter and restrict content relating to certain subjects. Does technology help in this regard?

Simon Allen: We are, like everybody, affected by what goes on in the wider world. It doesn't matter if it's in the U.S. or China – wherever.

We obviously have customers that are coming from every part of the political spectrum, and we respect all of our customers. Our own personal views are just that. The company takes a very apolitical stance on anything.

Our job, Michael – and this hopefully would make sense to Kevin as well – is to make sure that we provide the best content through the most elegant and useful platforms that we possibly can.

Now, we obviously maintain editorial purity for that. We will take our authors' curated views and content, and we will create and publish that material in any format that we see fit. We make sure that we review all of the materials that we do produce to ensure that they match the market requirements.

Sometimes there are changes. Perhaps this is Kevin's point. Then we have to respond to those changes based upon the customer requirements.

I think this is a great part of the question, Michael. It is easier to do that when we are largely now a digital company because clearly any content updates, content changes that we need to make, it's very straightforward for us to do them by the minute and, literally, in some instances, that's exactly what we do.

It isn't just about partisan issues. I'll give you one example. We had a great medical division, and we have a wonderful product called Access Medicine, which is an internal medicine website, if you like, that takes students right the way through what is happening in the medical community that they need to do know as med students.

Imagine what happened with COVID. Imagine what we had to do and update all the time based upon the latest guidelines, based upon what we had learned during the COVID period. Being a digital education company makes it very easy for us to respond flexibly and at great speed.

On metrics for evaluating digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: This is from Shail Khiyara. I've known him. He's a senior executive, and I've known him on social media for a long time. He asks two questions that I think are kind of linked. He says, "What are the metrics for measuring digital transformation and, at the same time," and this is an interesting one, he says, "how do you know that you're digitally transformed?"

Simon Allen: I think a lot of companies use similar metrics. For us, we obviously measure our digital activations. That's the key component.

We have various platforms at McGraw Hill, and I promised I wouldn't make this a commercial, and I won't, but McGraw Hill Connect is a very, very well-known platform in higher education, McGraw Hill ConnectED through the K-12 business, McGraw Hill ALEKS for both of those distinct categories, and then we have SIMnet, and we have AccessMedicine (like I'd mentioned).

In every instance, Michael, we measure the activations, and it's easy for us to do that. We could also measure the length of time students are using the material, how they've gone through the journey, so we can see what is useful about what we've created. It's a way for us to sense check what we've done and how we've innovated.

Is it actually being used by the student? We can see that. That's how we measure have we transformed.

Perhaps the rawest, most basic measure is how we measure our digital revenue, and that's an interesting one. In the case of higher education, 83% of our revenue is digitally delivered now. If you go back 20 years, it was barely not even 4% or 5%, so you can see the growth of our business.

We measure all of our businesses based upon digital revenue, and we measure the usability and the usefulness by the activations that we have through the different students and groups.

Michael Krigsman: It sounds like the revenue component obviously is where you're headed, but the activations are the indicator or the proxy for, can we say, customer satisfaction to ensure that your customers are happy.

Simon Allen: Yes. Yes.

Michael Krigsman: It's not just the revenue, but you want happy customers for today and the future.

Simon Allen: You've got it. Exactly. Obviously, activations turn into revenue. That's the way it flows. But if we have activations that are not consistently subscribed, they're not used all the time, there's a problem.

If we have particular products where students come in and drop out very quickly, that's a problem. We need to make sure that the quality of our platforms and obviously the sustainability and the connectivity of our platforms is very, very high. We look for 99.99% uptime. We achieve that. Then it's the case of making sure of that.

Our business is quite cyclical if you imagine when students go back. In the next week or two, most of the U.S. students are going back to college and also back to grade school in the coming month, certainly.

That's when our usage rates, of course, spike. When you get to midterms, you see a significant spike in usage rates.

One of the most important elements of our products and our platforms, Michael, are our assessment material. It's the assessment, the tools that students use, the study aids that students use to get them through their midterms to give them the chance to get the best grade possible.

In the case of K-12, it's a constant situation where we are testing their abilities in specific areas to make sure that they are using our material in the best ways possible. Also, the teachers are using it in the best way for their students as well.

On the importance of understanding customers

Michael Krigsman: Simon, would it be correct to say then that, for you, digital transformation means understanding the customer so we can better serve their needs, develop better products, and, therefore, generate higher revenue for us, for the company?

Simon Allen: Exactly. It's easy to say you understand the customer, but we have millions, tens of millions, of customers around the world, and actually, hundreds of millions when you combine our activations on platforms and print unit sales, et cetera.

Every customer requirement is a little bit different. That's what makes this business so wonderful and so interesting because there is no country that operates the same way. There's no course that really operates the same way.

What we try and do is aggregate what we believe the individual customers need to see and make sure that we're creating a platform (platforms, plural) that are flexible enough and allow the students to utilize the parts that they know they want to use and maybe ignore some pieces.

The same with the teaching community. We provide way too much that they could use in entirety. We do that deliberately. They pick and choose what they wish to use for their own teaching style.

On ensuring that innovation stays tied to customer needs

Michael Krigsman: We have another question, this time on Twitter. This is from Wayne Anderson. This gets again to the innovation that you were describing earlier, which obviously reflects that desire to always be meeting customer needs in the best way. And so, Wayne Anderson says this. He says, "How does your team ensure that innovation does not unhinge from customer needs?" I think what he means is ensure that innovation actually reflects what the customer wants.

Simon Allen: We have very close tracking to make sure that we see when we've just launched a new version of Connect, and we're going back to school right now, and when we have a new assessment material that is enabled to allow students to learn particular topics in certain ways, we try to make sure that the idea that we put in place and that we have launched is indeed fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed.

That means that we have student ambassadors. We have obviously the teaching community who we work with extremely closely, and we check, Michael. We make sure. We've just done a new release, and we say, "Is this doing what you wanted it to do? Are there areas that we should continually improve and change?"

There's always something we can do that's different. What did we forget? What did we miss? What should we offer? We can then alter that at speed.

Our DPG team, those 200+ software engineers, are very adept at making immediate changes in real-time so that students and teachers can make sure that the innovative products we've created are again usable and useful for them.

On digital transformation and culture change

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Shail Khiyara again. I love these questions. He comes back with something on digital transformation and strategy. He says, "Digital transformation is often about people and technology. Does people transformation (i.e., their roles, their growth, their engagement, upskilling) play a role in your digital transformation journey?" In other words, does your transformation also create a digital organizational DNA? He's getting right into the culture question here.

Simon Allen: Any transformation requires people and culture and buy-in from the company – any transformation. In my experience, thinking personally – and again, I've been doing this for a while in education – the biggest challenge and, I would say, reward is seeing the transformation in individuals, including myself, seeing the transformation in individuals that recognize the value of the use of technology as part of the way we transform our business and we think about our business in a very different way.

We call ourselves, Michael, an education company that uses technology brilliantly. That's how I define McGraw Hill when I'm in the pub talking to somebody.

When I think about the individuals that we worked with over the years, that has been a cultural shift that there are individuals that didn't quite see the value of making that transformation. There are individuals that believe that if you alter the way content is delivered in the traditional textbook way, you may mess with it, and it may not fulfill the purpose for which it was desired. We would completely disagree with that now, and I think we've all gone through that transformation.

Now, to Shail's point, I would say that the cultural shift of McGraw Hill and all of our staff has been the most important leadership element for me personally – to go back to an earlier question, Michael – about the importance of leadership of these transformations. But you cannot succeed in any form of digital transformation unless you have your staff with you. And any change processes you know – look at all the models – it goes through at least ten steps, and you have to take each step very, very seriously and work it through.

We're now at the stage – over the past, I would say, really six, seven years – where things have really transformed where now we've completed the journey of everyone at the company and our customers understanding the need for the change and the reason for the change.

The simple fact is, why has that happened? What was the ah-ha moment? I believe it is (certainly, for me) when we now realize that students are learning better through using our products digitally through our platforms. Teachers are able to teach in a more efficient way. They save a ton of time if they teach through Connect or ConnectED or ALEKS that that's when you realize, okay, that's it. That's now the completed transformation, and everyone believes that.

We still have print uses and we always will. That's fine. We'll always serve them. But the value of the education process and the ability to improve your learning activities in any course is going to be better by using our platforms because of the way they're designed, because of the learning science that we put into the platforms, to allow the students and teachers to work well.

Yeah, the transformation happens. It is as much cultural as it is digital, and you cannot succeed if you don't do both.

On the CEO role in digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: Simon, you are CEO, and so what is your role and your connection with digital transformation? I'm particularly asking because we tend to think of digital transformation as being this technology exercise.

Simon Allen: It isn't just the CEO. It's every role within our company engages in this digital transformation, Michael, because it just changes the way we think about everything we do from our finance teams, obviously, our business units themselves, those individuals that are creating the content, developing our platforms, but everyone thinks about the business now in a digital way. That's just how we define ourselves.

I don't think a CEO is any different from any other group and team within the company other than the fact that I'm accountable for it. I've got to make sure that I am leading the group.

To Shail's question, the change has been properly communicated and driven through, culturally, the organization. Now it's my responsibility and obligation to lead the company to execute – my favorite word, execute – on that change and make sure that I've got the right staff and the right teams that value the customer relationship as much as we all do and many of us have worked through for decades.

My job is to get the best people, the most innovative people, the most creative people that are thinking about education in everything that they do from a student's point of view and a teacher's perspective. That is driven through the company.

I lead that by example. That's what I have to do. I love doing it. And I expect and I require all of my team around the world to honor that and respect that. We are and we have transformed into a digital education company, and it's very exciting.

Michael Krigsman: You're responsible, ultimately, for the revenue in the company, but the mechanism (what I'm hearing you say) is understanding the customer needs, the educational requirements, and then being innovative inside McGraw Hill so that you can deliver better products and services. It sounds like, ultimately, you're the champion of that. That's where your focus lies.

Simon Allen: I'm responsible for a lot more than just the revenue. We have other financial metrics, including profitability, which of course is important. But also, I'm responsible for the safety and hopefully the good health of 4,000 people around the world.

I take those responsibilities very seriously, Michael, particularly over the past couple of years. There's been a lot going on, as you well know.

But you're right. My responsibility primarily is to make sure that, again, we're working through our customer groups, understanding what they wish to see. I've got to make sure I've got the team around me and under me that are able to recognize needs and requirements and have the funding.

We spend a lot of money on our digital platform group every year, and it's the best money we've ever spent. That needs to continue. We need to make sure we're investing in the areas that will bring back innovation and creativity into the platforms that we're creating.

That's what I've got to do is get that mindset, making sure that we have robust platforms with new releases regularly so that we're right at the cusp of education and how we believe the education community wants to operate. That's my job is to get that, instill a sense of urgency, instill a sense of pride, instill a sense of belief in what we can deliver in spirit in the company because we are doing better than anybody else.

We're providing really innovative material that helps the learning process. What an honor. What a privilege for us to do that.

People talk, Michael, about ESG. We do a lot. We are the biggest S you can ever imagine. There is nothing more social than education.

If you don't succeed with your education plan and your mission, you don't have society, and society breaks down. We've seen that, sadly, in a number of countries, particularly lately. I think, when you look at that, you take that responsibility seriously, it's very powerful.

You bring in staff. I have wonderful people that believe, as I do, that we are working for society in ways that we couldn't have imagined, and really helping the education process happen and come alive. It's a pleasure to do this.

I've often said to my staff, "We're in a wonderful, noble business," and it is that. It's a noble business that we're in.

On the reasons for McGraw Hill’s digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: I love that attitude, being in a noble business. It really harkens, brings to mind the phrase servant leadership.

We have a question from Lisbeth Shaw, who says, "Why did McGraw Hill embark on digital transformation, and in what ways did the company need to change?"

Simon Allen: We actually embarked on it well before our customers frankly were, in large part, ready for it. We used to begin with products like companion websites (going back to the year 2000 and before). Those products were literally websites that would accompany the specific textbooks.

We morphed very quickly into different platform activity based initially around assessment material, which is still, I think, the most important element of any platform delivery. It's how you assess your students and how you grade them.

We transformed that business pretty quickly, in some ways ahead of where the market was, to be perfectly frank. I think education can be quite (small C) a conservative community. There are some teachers and some faculty members that move faster than others when they adopt and think about using technology.

I think we spent a lot of time (and we still do) and money explaining to the teaching community why our digital platforms are so much better, how it will save them time, why the students will get better grades, why you will keep your students engaged and interested, why you will therefore reduce your turnover rates. You'll increase your retention rates of students.

That has been and is still an ongoing task for us. It will probably never end, Michael, to be perfectly honest.

We've been ready for this transformation for a very long time, and I think we've been ahead of the game in the sense that now I would say that the teaching community are probably being led by the students and some parents saying, "Hey, we can do this better. We can work this subject, this course much better if we use the platform that McGraw Hill is providing. Why don't we do that?"

I think now we've sort of equalized where our customer groups now say, "Okay. We get it. Now we see."

COVID was a big proponent. You can imagine the emergency that happened with faculty having to teach remotely, having to rely on digital versions of material coursework that they were using, of our need to immediately help train and education faculty and teachers how to use our digital platforms. That was a fascinating exercise. It had a little bit of stress involved, but it was very successful.

That really, I think, cemented the transformation to where we are today to where people (and by that I mean our customers, our teachers, and our student communities) recognize the value of our platforms and see exactly what we have created. Again, the usability of it is very, very powerful.

On how to address the digital divide

Michael Krigsman: Let's shift gears slightly. You're in education. You're in technology. And that to me immediately implies the notion of the digital divide. How do you intersect with that very important topic?

Simon Allen: It's a huge concern for me personally, for the company, and, I think, for society. The digital divide, the way we define it, is simply the individuals that do not have reliable, sustainable access to the Web. They cannot get online in any consistent fashion.

We spend, again, a ton of money on creating all of our products to be used on the platform. If the student cannot use or access the platform, we've wasted a lot of money but we've also wasted their time because they're missing an opportunity to develop their skills and learn more.

Once again, the digital divide means those poorer students from the poorer communities. That's where most of it is. It's not an urban-rural mix. It's much more an economic mix where the digital divide suffers.

I was delighted to see the Digital Economy Act that was part of the Biden Administration just last year that put in between $2 billion and $3 billion into the Digital Equity Act to make sure that students that were underserved communities, particularly in urban school districts, are able to now to have reliable, consistent access and get online. That is a critical part of making sure that the digital divide is reduced.

Quite honestly, we have to make sure that, in doing that, we create the right material to enable that digital divide to reduce and to provide material for everyone, every student that we can. It's critical for society. It's critical for our company that we do that.

My apologies for the dog barking, Michael. It's real and it's live.

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter] This is the work-from-home era in which we all are living.

Simon Allen: [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: The digital divide question is a very complicated one. We had the chief digital officer of T-Mobile as a guest on CXOTalk not too long ago. He was talking about the physical access needs. You've got this multilayered set of issues that have to be addressed.

Simon Allen: Accessibility is key. We've got a whole group or team of people across all of our core business units that focus on accessibility. We're very proud to work closely with the community from the point of view of those that are hard of hearing, have trouble seeing, making sure that all of our material is accessible in the right way for students to use.

Again, for society, Michael, it's critical that we do this. It's very important that we make sure we focus on our investments in areas like accessibility.

In some areas, it's a requirement. But quite honestly, we were way ahead of the requirements because it's just the right thing to do.

For companies in any sector, you do what is right and you invest the money that you need to, as quickly as you can, to make (in this instance) your accessibility tools very robust and useful. We've focused on that intensively, particularly over the last five years.

Michael Krigsman: How do you balance the investment in areas such as the digital divide (that you were just describing) against the short-term hit to profitability that those investments may cause?

Simon Allen: I don't balance it at all. Frankly, I don't care because this is not a profitability question. It's what's right for customers, what's right for the community, and what's right for society.

We spend what we need to spend to make sure that our products, all of them, are accessible. That's, if you like, the cost of doing business, Michael, and it should be.

It's kind of like your ESG goals. I view that in a similar way. We've talked about the S. Of course, there are others. But these are not issues that you choose to do based upon a profitability metric. You do these because it is vital to serve your community of customers in the way they expect.

I have no idea what it costs us. Frankly, I don't care because what I do care about is that we have the right tools in all of our platforms.

Again, if you think about the digital transformation, one of the biggest benefits is how easy it is for us to make our products accessible, fully accessible. That's something we can do a lot easier online than we could ever do in the print format.

Michael Krigsman: What you're saying certainly resonates with Wayne Anderson on Twitter who says a personal note. He says, "Plus 100 on your strategy." He said where he grew up, it still has 10% of the people with no form of Internet at home.

Simon Allen: Yes. Yes.

Michael Krigsman: Poverty is a multifaceted barrier that is hard to understand if you've never lived it.

Simon Allen: Yes.

Michael Krigsman: He says society and multigenerational challenges are working against you. What you're saying is really resonating with Wayne.

Simon Allen: He's right, Michael. Again, you think about urban districts, school districts in the U.S. But then you also think about you go to India, you go to certain parts of Latin America, Africa, and I spent a lot of time in schools in Rwanda, in Bolivia, and Latin America – all over the world.

It's a massive problem everywhere. It's not just a U.S. issue. This is a requirement globally that we get people connected. If they are connected, they have the opportunity to do anything they want to do, and we have the chance to serve them with the right tools and materials to help them learn.

But it can only happen if they're connected. We have an obligation, I think, morally, as much as anything else, to ensure that not just urban school districts, but everywhere in the world, is properly connected.

On advice for business leaders facing difficult transformation challenges

Michael Krigsman: As we finish up, I'd like to ask your advice for folks who are leading through change and leading through disruption. We all know that it's very hard to do, and we're running out of time, so I'll ask you to keep your answer pretty quick, pretty short.

Simon Allen: You've got to be consistent leading through change and through drama and crisis, like we've had. You've got to be consistent with your staff. You've got to communicate very frequently, often in this format (Zoom, video, whatever it may be).

You have to be able to really listen to what your staff are thinking. You need to be aware and flexible enough to change the way you think about the company.

A very quick example, Michael. All of our staff went remote overnight in March of 2020, like most people. We didn't skip a beat and, right now, we still operate in a hybrid environment. It works perfectly.

Our productivity is great. We've got a great group of staff that focus on what they need to focus on.

I don't care if they do that from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Monday to Friday or if they do it from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. or on Saturday afternoon. It makes no difference to me as long as the job is done and the work is done in the best possible way.

Be flexible when you think about change. Communicate with your staff. Listen to your staff really carefully and work out what's best for them because that will be what's best for the company.

Michael Krigsman: What advice do you have for middle managers inside a company that is undergoing change? Very often, middle managers are pulled in two directions. They're told by their leadership, "You need to innovate and change," and at the same time, they have existing customers and revenue streams and processes that they can't just uproot. What should middle managers do to be successful in this kind of environment?

Simon Allen: The middle managers need support and they need permission to fail and succeed, of course. But this is a very difficult role for many people, and this doesn't matter on the industry. But you've got to make sure they understand the goal, they understand the strategy of the company. They believe in it; else they wouldn't be in the position that they're in.

They need the support to enable them to make decisions for the longer term that may be uncomfortable. They probably will be uncomfortable for a period of time. They may even fail in some cases. Hey, that's life. That's how we learn.

Give them permission to fail, help them succeed, and set them up for success as much as you can. In any change environment, you've got to provide the tools to set any level of staff up for success. Rather than focusing on the change, focus on the environment and the infrastructure to enable the change. Set them up for success, and it does happen. It will work.

Michael Krigsman: The environment is the container, and then the change happens within that.

Simon Allen: Exactly.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. With that, a huge thank you to Simon Allen. He is the president and CEO of McGraw Hill. Thank you, Simon, for taking time to be with us today.

Simon Allen: Michael, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

Michael Krigsman: Thank you to everybody who watched, especially to those folks who asked such amazing questions. You guys are such a great audience.

Now before you go, please subscribe to our newsletter. Hit the subscribe button at the top of our website and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Thank you so much, everybody. Be sure to check out CXOTalk.com for incredible, upcoming shows, and we will see you again next time. Have a great day.

Simon Allen: It's easy to say you understand the customer, but we have millions, tens of millions of customers around the world. Hundreds of millions when you combine our activations on platforms and print unit sales, et cetera.

Every customer requirement is a little bit different. That's what makes this business so wonderful and so interesting.

On digital transformation at McGraw Hill

Michael Krigsman: We're talking about digital transformation with Simon Allen. He is the president and CEO of McGraw Hill.

Simon Allen: We've been around for just over 130 years, known as primarily a wonderful content, textbook company, and we've transformed over the last few years to become now really a very direct education company that focuses on our digital materials, our digital platforms.

We have around 4,000 staff all over the world, passionate individuals dedicated to our mission of helping educators, helping students learn in the best way that they can, and providing tools to teachers and professors around the world.

Michael Krigsman: As CEO of the company, where do you spend your time and your focus?

Simon Allen: I have a wonderful leadership team, Michael. I've got ten direct leaders that manage our four business units.

If you think about the learning lifecycle, if you like, as a continuum, we have our pre-K to 12 business, we have our higher education business, we have our professional education business, and also an international business that encompasses all of those units around the world.

I spend my time with all those individuals. I've been in the business for 36 years – in fact, it's 36 years next week – with a company that is now part of McGraw Hill. Because of that luxury, I believe, (and privilege, too) I feel like I know the industry and the sector rather well. I should after that length of time. Let's be honest.

What I find I do is spend time with my leadership team and then also I drop down into various individuals right down to the salesforce where I spend (during the semesters – at least if I can) two or three days a month (certainly, pre-COVID) working and seeing our customers as often as I can. That's the only way, Michael, that we can really understand what they need out of us, from us.

We're here to talk about digital transformation. That's how we know we're on the right track is when I have the opportunity to work with my colleagues and just listen to what our customers want to say.

On digital transformation and empathy for customer experience

Michael Krigsman: Can you tell us what is that linkage between listening, understanding customers, and your employees and digital transformation?

Simon Allen: The connection is making sure that you understand not just what's possible but what's going to be useful and usable.

There is a huge amount – and your listeners will know this. There is a huge amount you can do with technology today. Much of it is all wonderful, but how much of it is usable and useful?

If you think of the teaching community, you're thinking of grade school teachers. You think of university and college professors. How much are they actually going to utilize that will add value to what they do every day? How much can we provide digitally that will save them time? That's a key component. And also, what can we provide the students that will help them in their learning journey?

That connection between our employees understanding that, me understanding that, and the connection with our customers is critical that we're very, very closely engaged and involved with them, and we have regular symposia (seminars, if you like) with our core customers, and we drill deep with them over many days at a time to really understand what do you want us to do, what do you want us to create, and how should we innovate. Rather than just what's possible, what is usable and useful for you?

On the digital transformation of operations and processes

Michael Krigsman: That's a very interesting and important point because there are times when you speak with people, one speaks with people about digital transformation, and they'll say, "Oh, yeah. You know we're putting up an e-commerce website." But for you, it is far more basic, fundamental business and customer issues that you're actually thinking of first.

Simon Allen: Yes, it's a lot more than just putting up a website. Michael, you're right. You have to think about the science of learning. We call ourselves often a learning science company, and by that we mean the need for us to understand how students learn, how professors like to teach using technology to enable those students to learn.

We like to think about adaptive questioning processes, algorithms that allow us to adapt for the student's learning journey. We can direct them into any number of different directions depending on what they've just answered.

The complexity with what we have, that's one of the reasons that, within our structure, we have a dedicated digital platform group that we set up around nine years ago now. That's staffed by a couple of hundred people, brilliant software engineers, obviously a core part of McGraw Hill's structure, working across our business units to make sure that we understand again what is possible, how we can innovate, and what we can provide the students and the faculty and all of the teaching community to help them.

That's the critical element. It's again what is useful and usable for you that will take your journey faster for students and really help the teaching community use the right tools.

On innovation and digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: Simon, you use the term innovation several times. Where does innovation fit in when you think about digital transformation at McGraw Hill?

Simon Allen: Innovation to me means creativity. It means thinking about opportunities and potential products that have never been created before, including where teachers and faculty members have never even thought about something that we are thinking of developing and launching.

We have a particular product I have in mind that I will reserve the right to get into too much detail because obviously, it's sensitive, but we have a wonderful K-12 product right now that we are developing for the teaching community that will enable them to be very, very directly engaged with their classroom performance, utilizing data in a way that will really help them understand how students are performing and where the teacher themselves can also perhaps change the way they're thinking about their class to make sure that we manage the problem of retention where our intervention tools, our products that enable students to stay in the classroom, are there and they're prioritized.

There are many products now, Michael, that we talk to our customers about where they say, "Wow, I'd never thought about that. I never thought that we could use this kind of material." That's what I mean when I'm saying innovation.

I think everyone understands the digital transformation and a concept, particularly also from a content company now to a digital platform company that McGraw Hill has become. But when you think about true innovation, you're thinking about ideas that your customers have probably never even considered.

Michael Krigsman: That's why, when we talk about digital transformation, very often it's discussed as placing the customer in the center.

Simon Allen: Yes, and that's exactly where the customer—

Frankly, that doesn't make any difference, digital transformation or a basic analog company. The customer always has to be at the center.

I remember going back to my repping days, believe it or not, in Dallas, Texas. I know I don't sound like that, Michael, but it's true. I spent three years trolling around north Texas talking to faculty, professors. I was in the higher ed group.

Even then, well before people thought about digital transformation, you are talking about your customers, putting them front and center with everything that we create. When you're curating and developing content, it doesn't matter in what form. When you're doing that, you do it based upon what the customer needs to see and understand.

When you're developing supplements – and we've seen a huge transformation in that over 36 years – you do it with your customer absolutely front and center.

Michael Krigsman: Now subscribe to our newsletter. Go to CXOTalk.com and hit the subscribe button at the top of our website so you can be notified of our great, upcoming shows.

On the politics of change management

We have a number of questions that have come in on LinkedIn, and so why don't we jump over there? The first one is from Kevin Kieller. He says, "How is McGraw Hill affected by this increased level of partisan—?" he doesn't say politics, but basically the desire to filter and restrict content relating to certain subjects. Does technology help in this regard?

Simon Allen: We are, like everybody, affected by what goes on in the wider world. It doesn't matter if it's in the U.S. or China – wherever.

We obviously have customers that are coming from every part of the political spectrum, and we respect all of our customers. Our own personal views are just that. The company takes a very apolitical stance on anything.

Our job, Michael – and this hopefully would make sense to Kevin as well – is to make sure that we provide the best content through the most elegant and useful platforms that we possibly can.

Now, we obviously maintain editorial purity for that. We will take our authors' curated views and content, and we will create and publish that material in any format that we see fit. We make sure that we review all of the materials that we do produce to ensure that they match the market requirements.

Sometimes there are changes. Perhaps this is Kevin's point. Then we have to respond to those changes based upon the customer requirements.

I think this is a great part of the question, Michael. It is easier to do that when we are largely now a digital company because clearly any content updates, content changes that we need to make, it's very straightforward for us to do them by the minute and, literally, in some instances, that's exactly what we do.

It isn't just about partisan issues. I'll give you one example. We had a great medical division, and we have a wonderful product called Access Medicine, which is an internal medicine website, if you like, that takes students right the way through what is happening in the medical community that they need to do know as med students.

Imagine what happened with COVID. Imagine what we had to do and update all the time based upon the latest guidelines, based upon what we had learned during the COVID period. Being a digital education company makes it very easy for us to respond flexibly and at great speed.

On metrics for evaluating digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: This is from Shail Khiyara. I've known him. He's a senior executive, and I've known him on social media for a long time. He asks two questions that I think are kind of linked. He says, "What are the metrics for measuring digital transformation and, at the same time," and this is an interesting one, he says, "how do you know that you're digitally transformed?"

Simon Allen: I think a lot of companies use similar metrics. For us, we obviously measure our digital activations. That's the key component.

We have various platforms at McGraw Hill, and I promised I wouldn't make this a commercial, and I won't, but McGraw Hill Connect is a very, very well-known platform in higher education, McGraw Hill ConnectED through the K-12 business, McGraw Hill ALEKS for both of those distinct categories, and then we have SIMnet, and we have AccessMedicine (like I'd mentioned).

In every instance, Michael, we measure the activations, and it's easy for us to do that. We could also measure the length of time students are using the material, how they've gone through the journey, so we can see what is useful about what we've created. It's a way for us to sense check what we've done and how we've innovated.

Is it actually being used by the student? We can see that. That's how we measure have we transformed.

Perhaps the rawest, most basic measure is how we measure our digital revenue, and that's an interesting one. In the case of higher education, 83% of our revenue is digitally delivered now. If you go back 20 years, it was barely not even 4% or 5%, so you can see the growth of our business.

We measure all of our businesses based upon digital revenue, and we measure the usability and the usefulness by the activations that we have through the different students and groups.

Michael Krigsman: It sounds like the revenue component obviously is where you're headed, but the activations are the indicator or the proxy for, can we say, customer satisfaction to ensure that your customers are happy.

Simon Allen: Yes. Yes.

Michael Krigsman: It's not just the revenue, but you want happy customers for today and the future.

Simon Allen: You've got it. Exactly. Obviously, activations turn into revenue. That's the way it flows. But if we have activations that are not consistently subscribed, they're not used all the time, there's a problem.

If we have particular products where students come in and drop out very quickly, that's a problem. We need to make sure that the quality of our platforms and obviously the sustainability and the connectivity of our platforms is very, very high. We look for 99.99% uptime. We achieve that. Then it's the case of making sure of that.

Our business is quite cyclical if you imagine when students go back. In the next week or two, most of the U.S. students are going back to college and also back to grade school in the coming month, certainly.

That's when our usage rates, of course, spike. When you get to midterms, you see a significant spike in usage rates.

One of the most important elements of our products and our platforms, Michael, are our assessment material. It's the assessment, the tools that students use, the study aids that students use to get them through their midterms to give them the chance to get the best grade possible.

In the case of K-12, it's a constant situation where we are testing their abilities in specific areas to make sure that they are using our material in the best ways possible. Also, the teachers are using it in the best way for their students as well.

On the importance of understanding customers

Michael Krigsman: Simon, would it be correct to say then that, for you, digital transformation means understanding the customer so we can better serve their needs, develop better products, and, therefore, generate higher revenue for us, for the company?

Simon Allen: Exactly. It's easy to say you understand the customer, but we have millions, tens of millions, of customers around the world, and actually, hundreds of millions when you combine our activations on platforms and print unit sales, et cetera.

Every customer requirement is a little bit different. That's what makes this business so wonderful and so interesting because there is no country that operates the same way. There's no course that really operates the same way.

What we try and do is aggregate what we believe the individual customers need to see and make sure that we're creating a platform (platforms, plural) that are flexible enough and allow the students to utilize the parts that they know they want to use and maybe ignore some pieces.

The same with the teaching community. We provide way too much that they could use in entirety. We do that deliberately. They pick and choose what they wish to use for their own teaching style.

On ensuring that innovation stays tied to customer needs

Michael Krigsman: We have another question, this time on Twitter. This is from Wayne Anderson. This gets again to the innovation that you were describing earlier, which obviously reflects that desire to always be meeting customer needs in the best way. And so, Wayne Anderson says this. He says, "How does your team ensure that innovation does not unhinge from customer needs?" I think what he means is ensure that innovation actually reflects what the customer wants.

Simon Allen: We have very close tracking to make sure that we see when we've just launched a new version of Connect, and we're going back to school right now, and when we have a new assessment material that is enabled to allow students to learn particular topics in certain ways, we try to make sure that the idea that we put in place and that we have launched is indeed fulfilling the purpose for which it was designed.

That means that we have student ambassadors. We have obviously the teaching community who we work with extremely closely, and we check, Michael. We make sure. We've just done a new release, and we say, "Is this doing what you wanted it to do? Are there areas that we should continually improve and change?"

There's always something we can do that's different. What did we forget? What did we miss? What should we offer? We can then alter that at speed.

Our DPG team, those 200+ software engineers, are very adept at making immediate changes in real-time so that students and teachers can make sure that the innovative products we've created are again usable and useful for them.

On digital transformation and culture change

Michael Krigsman: We have another question from Shail Khiyara again. I love these questions. He comes back with something on digital transformation and strategy. He says, "Digital transformation is often about people and technology. Does people transformation (i.e., their roles, their growth, their engagement, upskilling) play a role in your digital transformation journey?" In other words, does your transformation also create a digital organizational DNA? He's getting right into the culture question here.

Simon Allen: Any transformation requires people and culture and buy-in from the company – any transformation. In my experience, thinking personally – and again, I've been doing this for a while in education – the biggest challenge and, I would say, reward is seeing the transformation in individuals, including myself, seeing the transformation in individuals that recognize the value of the use of technology as part of the way we transform our business and we think about our business in a very different way.

We call ourselves, Michael, an education company that uses technology brilliantly. That's how I define McGraw Hill when I'm in the pub talking to somebody.

When I think about the individuals that we worked with over the years, that has been a cultural shift that there are individuals that didn't quite see the value of making that transformation. There are individuals that believe that if you alter the way content is delivered in the traditional textbook way, you may mess with it, and it may not fulfill the purpose for which it was desired. We would completely disagree with that now, and I think we've all gone through that transformation.

Now, to Shail's point, I would say that the cultural shift of McGraw Hill and all of our staff has been the most important leadership element for me personally – to go back to an earlier question, Michael – about the importance of leadership of these transformations. But you cannot succeed in any form of digital transformation unless you have your staff with you. And any change processes you know – look at all the models – it goes through at least ten steps, and you have to take each step very, very seriously and work it through.

We're now at the stage – over the past, I would say, really six, seven years – where things have really transformed where now we've completed the journey of everyone at the company and our customers understanding the need for the change and the reason for the change.

The simple fact is, why has that happened? What was the ah-ha moment? I believe it is (certainly, for me) when we now realize that students are learning better through using our products digitally through our platforms. Teachers are able to teach in a more efficient way. They save a ton of time if they teach through Connect or ConnectED or ALEKS that that's when you realize, okay, that's it. That's now the completed transformation, and everyone believes that.

We still have print uses and we always will. That's fine. We'll always serve them. But the value of the education process and the ability to improve your learning activities in any course is going to be better by using our platforms because of the way they're designed, because of the learning science that we put into the platforms, to allow the students and teachers to work well.

Yeah, the transformation happens. It is as much cultural as it is digital, and you cannot succeed if you don't do both.

On the CEO role in digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: Simon, you are CEO, and so what is your role and your connection with digital transformation? I'm particularly asking because we tend to think of digital transformation as being this technology exercise.

Simon Allen: It isn't just the CEO. It's every role within our company engages in this digital transformation, Michael, because it just changes the way we think about everything we do from our finance teams, obviously, our business units themselves, those individuals that are creating the content, developing our platforms, but everyone thinks about the business now in a digital way. That's just how we define ourselves.

I don't think a CEO is any different from any other group and team within the company other than the fact that I'm accountable for it. I've got to make sure that I am leading the group.

To Shail's question, the change has been properly communicated and driven through, culturally, the organization. Now it's my responsibility and obligation to lead the company to execute – my favorite word, execute – on that change and make sure that I've got the right staff and the right teams that value the customer relationship as much as we all do and many of us have worked through for decades.

My job is to get the best people, the most innovative people, the most creative people that are thinking about education in everything that they do from a student's point of view and a teacher's perspective. That is driven through the company.

I lead that by example. That's what I have to do. I love doing it. And I expect and I require all of my team around the world to honor that and respect that. We are and we have transformed into a digital education company, and it's very exciting.

Michael Krigsman: You're responsible, ultimately, for the revenue in the company, but the mechanism (what I'm hearing you say) is understanding the customer needs, the educational requirements, and then being innovative inside McGraw Hill so that you can deliver better products and services. It sounds like, ultimately, you're the champion of that. That's where your focus lies.

Simon Allen: I'm responsible for a lot more than just the revenue. We have other financial metrics, including profitability, which of course is important. But also, I'm responsible for the safety and hopefully the good health of 4,000 people around the world.

I take those responsibilities very seriously, Michael, particularly over the past couple of years. There's been a lot going on, as you well know.

But you're right. My responsibility primarily is to make sure that, again, we're working through our customer groups, understanding what they wish to see. I've got to make sure I've got the team around me and under me that are able to recognize needs and requirements and have the funding.

We spend a lot of money on our digital platform group every year, and it's the best money we've ever spent. That needs to continue. We need to make sure we're investing in the areas that will bring back innovation and creativity into the platforms that we're creating.

That's what I've got to do is get that mindset, making sure that we have robust platforms with new releases regularly so that we're right at the cusp of education and how we believe the education community wants to operate. That's my job is to get that, instill a sense of urgency, instill a sense of pride, instill a sense of belief in what we can deliver in spirit in the company because we are doing better than anybody else.

We're providing really innovative material that helps the learning process. What an honor. What a privilege for us to do that.

People talk, Michael, about ESG. We do a lot. We are the biggest S you can ever imagine. There is nothing more social than education.

If you don't succeed with your education plan and your mission, you don't have society, and society breaks down. We've seen that, sadly, in a number of countries, particularly lately. I think, when you look at that, you take that responsibility seriously, it's very powerful.

You bring in staff. I have wonderful people that believe, as I do, that we are working for society in ways that we couldn't have imagined, and really helping the education process happen and come alive. It's a pleasure to do this.

I've often said to my staff, "We're in a wonderful, noble business," and it is that. It's a noble business that we're in.

On the reasons for McGraw Hill’s digital transformation

Michael Krigsman: I love that attitude, being in a noble business. It really harkens, brings to mind the phrase servant leadership.

We have a question from Lisbeth Shaw, who says, "Why did McGraw Hill embark on digital transformation, and in what ways did the company need to change?"

Simon Allen: We actually embarked on it well before our customers frankly were, in large part, ready for it. We used to begin with products like companion websites (going back to the year 2000 and before). Those products were literally websites that would accompany the specific textbooks.

We morphed very quickly into different platform activity based initially around assessment material, which is still, I think, the most important element of any platform delivery. It's how you assess your students and how you grade them.

We transformed that business pretty quickly, in some ways ahead of where the market was, to be perfectly frank. I think education can be quite (small C) a conservative community. There are some teachers and some faculty members that move faster than others when they adopt and think about using technology.

I think we spent a lot of time (and we still do) and money explaining to the teaching community why our digital platforms are so much better, how it will save them time, why the students will get better grades, why you will keep your students engaged and interested, why you will therefore reduce your turnover rates. You'll increase your retention rates of students.

That has been and is still an ongoing task for us. It will probably never end, Michael, to be perfectly honest.

We've been ready for this transformation for a very long time, and I think we've been ahead of the game in the sense that now I would say that the teaching community are probably being led by the students and some parents saying, "Hey, we can do this better. We can work this subject, this course much better if we use the platform that McGraw Hill is providing. Why don't we do that?"

I think now we've sort of equalized where our customer groups now say, "Okay. We get it. Now we see."

COVID was a big proponent. You can imagine the emergency that happened with faculty having to teach remotely, having to rely on digital versions of material coursework that they were using, of our need to immediately help train and education faculty and teachers how to use our digital platforms. That was a fascinating exercise. It had a little bit of stress involved, but it was very successful.

That really, I think, cemented the transformation to where we are today to where people (and by that I mean our customers, our teachers, and our student communities) recognize the value of our platforms and see exactly what we have created. Again, the usability of it is very, very powerful.

On how to address the digital divide

Michael Krigsman: Let's shift gears slightly. You're in education. You're in technology. And that to me immediately implies the notion of the digital divide. How do you intersect with that very important topic?

Simon Allen: It's a huge concern for me personally, for the company, and, I think, for society. The digital divide, the way we define it, is simply the individuals that do not have reliable, sustainable access to the Web. They cannot get online in any consistent fashion.

We spend, again, a ton of money on creating all of our products to be used on the platform. If the student cannot use or access the platform, we've wasted a lot of money but we've also wasted their time because they're missing an opportunity to develop their skills and learn more.

Once again, the digital divide means those poorer students from the poorer communities. That's where most of it is. It's not an urban-rural mix. It's much more an economic mix where the digital divide suffers.

I was delighted to see the Digital Economy Act that was part of the Biden Administration just last year that put in between $2 billion and $3 billion into the Digital Equity Act to make sure that students that were underserved communities, particularly in urban school districts, are able to now to have reliable, consistent access and get online. That is a critical part of making sure that the digital divide is reduced.

Quite honestly, we have to make sure that, in doing that, we create the right material to enable that digital divide to reduce and to provide material for everyone, every student that we can. It's critical for society. It's critical for our company that we do that.

My apologies for the dog barking, Michael. It's real and it's live.

Michael Krigsman: [Laughter] This is the work-from-home era in which we all are living.

Simon Allen: [Laughter]

Michael Krigsman: The digital divide question is a very complicated one. We had the chief digital officer of T-Mobile as a guest on CXOTalk not too long ago. He was talking about the physical access needs. You've got this multilayered set of issues that have to be addressed.

Simon Allen: Accessibility is key. We've got a whole group or team of people across all of our core business units that focus on accessibility. We're very proud to work closely with the community from the point of view of those that are hard of hearing, have trouble seeing, making sure that all of our material is accessible in the right way for students to use.

Again, for society, Michael, it's critical that we do this. It's very important that we make sure we focus on our investments in areas like accessibility.

In some areas, it's a requirement. But quite honestly, we were way ahead of the requirements because it's just the right thing to do.

For companies in any sector, you do what is right and you invest the money that you need to, as quickly as you can, to make (in this instance) your accessibility tools very robust and useful. We've focused on that intensively, particularly over the last five years.

Michael Krigsman: How do you balance the investment in areas such as the digital divide (that you were just describing) against the short-term hit to profitability that those investments may cause?

Simon Allen: I don't balance it at all. Frankly, I don't care because this is not a profitability question. It's what's right for customers, what's right for the community, and what's right for society.

We spend what we need to spend to make sure that our products, all of them, are accessible. That's, if you like, the cost of doing business, Michael, and it should be.

It's kind of like your ESG goals. I view that in a similar way. We've talked about the S. Of course, there are others. But these are not issues that you choose to do based upon a profitability metric. You do these because it is vital to serve your community of customers in the way they expect.

I have no idea what it costs us. Frankly, I don't care because what I do care about is that we have the right tools in all of our platforms.

Again, if you think about the digital transformation, one of the biggest benefits is how easy it is for us to make our products accessible, fully accessible. That's something we can do a lot easier online than we could ever do in the print format.

Michael Krigsman: What you're saying certainly resonates with Wayne Anderson on Twitter who says a personal note. He says, "Plus 100 on your strategy." He said where he grew up, it still has 10% of the people with no form of Internet at home.

Simon Allen: Yes. Yes.

Michael Krigsman: Poverty is a multifaceted barrier that is hard to understand if you've never lived it.

Simon Allen: Yes.

Michael Krigsman: He says society and multigenerational challenges are working against you. What you're saying is really resonating with Wayne.

Simon Allen: He's right, Michael. Again, you think about urban districts, school districts in the U.S. But then you also think about you go to India, you go to certain parts of Latin America, Africa, and I spent a lot of time in schools in Rwanda, in Bolivia, and Latin America – all over the world.

It's a massive problem everywhere. It's not just a U.S. issue. This is a requirement globally that we get people connected. If they are connected, they have the opportunity to do anything they want to do, and we have the chance to serve them with the right tools and materials to help them learn.

But it can only happen if they're connected. We have an obligation, I think, morally, as much as anything else, to ensure that not just urban school districts, but everywhere in the world, is properly connected.

On advice for business leaders facing difficult transformation challenges

Michael Krigsman: As we finish up, I'd like to ask your advice for folks who are leading through change and leading through disruption. We all know that it's very hard to do, and we're running out of time, so I'll ask you to keep your answer pretty quick, pretty short.

Simon Allen: You've got to be consistent leading through change and through drama and crisis, like we've had. You've got to be consistent with your staff. You've got to communicate very frequently, often in this format (Zoom, video, whatever it may be).

You have to be able to really listen to what your staff are thinking. You need to be aware and flexible enough to change the way you think about the company.

A very quick example, Michael. All of our staff went remote overnight in March of 2020, like most people. We didn't skip a beat and, right now, we still operate in a hybrid environment. It works perfectly.

Our productivity is great. We've got a great group of staff that focus on what they need to focus on.

I don't care if they do that from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Monday to Friday or if they do it from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. or on Saturday afternoon. It makes no difference to me as long as the job is done and the work is done in the best possible way.

Be flexible when you think about change. Communicate with your staff. Listen to your staff really carefully and work out what's best for them because that will be what's best for the company.

Michael Krigsman: What advice do you have for middle managers inside a company that is undergoing change? Very often, middle managers are pulled in two directions. They're told by their leadership, "You need to innovate and change," and at the same time, they have existing customers and revenue streams and processes that they can't just uproot. What should middle managers do to be successful in this kind of environment?

Simon Allen: The middle managers need support and they need permission to fail and succeed, of course. But this is a very difficult role for many people, and this doesn't matter on the industry. But you've got to make sure they understand the goal, they understand the strategy of the company. They believe in it; else they wouldn't be in the position that they're in.

They need the support to enable them to make decisions for the longer term that may be uncomfortable. They probably will be uncomfortable for a period of time. They may even fail in some cases. Hey, that's life. That's how we learn.

Give them permission to fail, help them succeed, and set them up for success as much as you can. In any change environment, you've got to provide the tools to set any level of staff up for success. Rather than focusing on the change, focus on the environment and the infrastructure to enable the change. Set them up for success, and it does happen. It will work.

Michael Krigsman: The environment is the container, and then the change happens within that.

Simon Allen: Exactly.

Michael Krigsman: Okay. With that, a huge thank you to Simon Allen. He is the president and CEO of McGraw Hill. Thank you, Simon, for taking time to be with us today.

Simon Allen: Michael, it's been a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me.

Michael Krigsman: Thank you to everybody who watched, especially to those folks who asked such amazing questions. You guys are such a great audience.

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