Edtech in focus: bksb interview
Harvinder Atwal is the Managing Director of bksb Ltd, an eLearning solution provider for Functional Skills and GCSEs. From just two in-house employees, this edtech firm has grown significantly, and now offers its services to millions of learners. We spoke with Harvinder about how she sets her business apart from competitors, guards against disruption and about the transition from in-house solution to successful business.
Tell us about your career trajectory.
I began working at West Nottinghamshire College almost 27 years ago. I started part time, as I had two small children at the time and the hours allowed me to work around my childcare commitments. The college even had a crèche which I could use, so it ticked all the boxes for me.
I first worked on reception, and I loved engaging with learners and helping them to find the right course. I then moved to support the development managers for community education, key skills, and schools liaison. With this position, I was given a better insight into how a college functions and how services are delivered to learners. I had always been involved in the family business(es) growing up, and this background proved particularly useful in this role, as I became involved in developing delivery plans for the managers.
When working with the Schools’ Liaison Manager, I saw the relationship between the school and college in the delivery of GNVQs, and how learner performance wasn’t always assessed and communicated as effectively as it could be between organisations. With this in mind, and as part of a college initiative, we created a paper-based assessment, which enabled us to determine the learners’ skill levels in English and maths when they first arrived at college. Ultimately this is what first led us to creating learning content in the 1990s, initially on paper, to help fill the skill gaps we identified when assessing students.
How did that initiative become a monetised product?
I was at an event with my line manager (at the time), and another college approached and asked whether they could buy the learning content. Whilst it wasn’t commercially available at that time, we realised there was an opportunity to make money from the initiative and we pitched a business plan to our college principal.
It was approved and started with just two of us selling the paperbased resources at events. Now, we’re the leading supplier in the UK and Australia, and have a team of 35 people supporting organisations and learners across every major continent.
That’s impressive – it sounds like you were able to take an idea and just run with it. Why do you think it was successful?
It was successful because there was a demand for this type of solution - it was something which the colleges and schools really needed. bksb is also a product developed in the sector, for the sector, which allows us an insight into the requirements within education. We have that inside knowledge of any new government initiative, changes or sector requirements, so we can anticipate and adapt to these needs with how we develop our solutions.
We have thousands of learners here to work with, and we share that insight with them. Because we have strong relationships with our clients and other learning organisations, specifically an understanding of their classroom delivery and management of English and maths learning, we continually tailor our products and our support directly to meet their needs.
You said you started with paper products, then moved into a technological solution. How did that come about?
We’ve always focused heavily on the learner experience, and it was absolutely necessary at that time to redevelop the products to ensure that the learners would continue to engage with the bksb solutions.
Interactivity was becoming a key element in education at that point, and we could see that I.T. was going to no longer be a standalone subject, but would in fact underpin teaching and learning in English and maths too.
Once bksb became I.T. based, it also aided the delivery to market. We used to physically print all of our content, and have it couriered all across the UK.
We then moved to CDs/software in the early 00s, developing the content as PDF files. Then the system became networked and, finally, it became a fully-hosted online product just over 10 years ago.
"We can control our content now, and add products to clients’ accounts at the click of a button. Learners, tutors and managers can get instant access to their information from any type of device (PC, iPad, mobile phone), 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s the modern world."
So ultimately we have much better management and control over the product, and we continually update our offering to keep content relevant and fresh.
How did you progress from being a UK-focused skills assessment business to being in the global marketplace?
Our international focus started when an organisation from Brisbane, Australia, visited the college and met with us. Their learners were having similar problems as learners were in the UK. The education system is quite similar for secondary and adult learning in Australia, and we could see the same requirements from the market we recognised in the UK when we first set up.
So we built a working relationship with them, whereby they made recommendations to edit and contextualise the content to make the programme work for their curriculum (for English and maths). We tailored the system, with this new content, to meet the needs of this new market.
They first used this redeveloped system within their own TAFE college, and we later created a distribution agreement for them to resell bksb to other education providers in Australia. It’s a fantastic arrangement, and we have a great relationship with them. bksb has been established there for just over 10 years now, and we’re already at around 57% market share of the TAFE colleges in Australia.
We’re also getting some traction in India. We set up a subsidiary company in Chandigarh back in 2015. Whilst maths and English is supported by government funding in the UK and Australia, it’s not the case in India. There, it’s more private sector learners paying fees to be in an establishment, but it’s not mandated that they pass maths and English alongside their vocation of study. Organisations realise the need to develop the skills of their learners and staff, but it’s not a requirement as yet.
So it’s been a difficult market to penetrate, and we’ve found lots of challenges along the way. But we know there is a need for the product we offer – the students certainly are ready for it – and we’re seeing an increase in interest, month on month. It’s important for us to position ourselves at the front of the queue as the environment shifts towards this method of teaching and learning in India.
HQ: Mansfield, Nottinghamshire
How did you scale your product and business?
We initially produced and delivered hosting arrangements for the bksb materials, in-house, but now we use Amazon (AWS) to host our product.
We also originally had a lot of support from our college, but as we grew organically, we all recognised the need for a greater separation as we were dominating the market and required greater business autonomy. However, they were (and are) very supportive as we scaled. It was made easier in the beginning because we had that existing infrastructure from the college to support us, giving us the space to focus on development and sales. They still give us support through certain services, but we are now a fully independent company.
The key challenge I've faced in the past with scaling is to manage and grow a team of people. At times, we've had issues with processes, like any other company, but we're a company that adapts and responds very quickly. We're always putting things in place to anticipate change; whether that is from the market, from technological advancements or just how we operate and manage growth internally. Our future planning is always more than just looking a year ahead.
What does bksb offer that's different to other companies doing similar things in your sector?
I think it's how we structure and present our content, how the learner and tutor experience is managed in the system, and the service that we provide. It's also the sector knowledge that we have – most of the people at bksb are from the sector, so they understand and appreciate what the issues are which the learners and tutors face, and the needs of management within those establishments too.
"We create a positive working environment, and every member of the team is motivated to provide the best possible outcomes in everything they do. They care about the company and about our clients. The culture we’ve created here isn’t something which can be bought; it resides in the personnel, and they are just as key to the success of bksb as the product itself."
How does bksb safeguard against disruption?
We've been around a long time, and we’re always trying to perfect the quality of the content and services for our customers. Others can try to replicate what we do, but our high-quality service and expert knowledge is something which our clients appreciate and come back to every year.
Our main drivers aren’t just about business; they’re about the community and for learner benefit. Our culture is very people-focused, and that resonates with our customers, most of which are from public sector organisations.
We’re also working on achieving our ISO standards. We’ve gained multiple high status awards and recognition in the past, but we’re really focussed on showing that we exceed industry standards for the quality of our operations too.
How do you adapt your product for the changing education market?
bksb is very focused on product development. For some businesses, they create a product or have an idea, but they don’t continue developing after that idea is taken to market. We constantly invest profits back into the development of the product to keep it fresh and relevant. We’ve invested in working with global leaders such as AWS, and we learn from them continually.
We have to keep on top of the government agenda, and question what the government plans to do for maths and English in two years’ time, and in five years’ time. We prepare ahead, and review our content before changes are made. For example, currently there are reforms for the Functional Skills curriculum, and we’re in a position where we’ve prepared for that already. We keep regular contact with the bodies making these changes, and conduct our own research, so we’re always able to adjust and adapt our product.
We support other colleges and training providers; our target partnerships are such a diverse group. We work with the police force, the NHS, employers, charities etc. We actually adapt the product to fit several different markets, which also keeps us ahead of competitors.
What advice would you give to someone who plans to start out in the edtech sector?
I think to get ahead in this sector, you have to really be aware, and do the research and planning at the very start. You need to think about how you're going to offer something which adds value to the teaching and learning experience, above and beyond what is expected, and how you will take your team with you in future.
Communication is very important. At the beginning, when we worked on paper, the writers and content creators had the lead in how things were structured. Now, with our content being produced online, the developers can help to take the lead in terms of how we structure things. There has to be communication between departments, a balance between content and usability. If we have disengaging content, the learners won’t use the product. If it’s not easily accessible, they won’t use it. By having developers and content creators working together, we resolve those issues.
Our sales and development teams meet regularly too, which never would have happened in the beginning. Sales often see where the gaps in the market are, and can relay that back to the developers and creators. I wish I’d started facilitating this level of communication years ago.