As part of The Learnovate Centre’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Andrew Miller who is CEO at Folens, an Irish-owned company producing a range of educational content for the past 60 years.
Folens, which employs 70 people, is a household name in Ireland and a publisher of schoolbooks used in primary and post primary schools. With every book there comes a student textbook and a range of components to form a complete programme to support teachers and students alike.
In 2021, Folens launched Homework Space — a project on which they worked closely with Learnovate. Homework Space is Ireland’s first digital homework platform for setting and correcting assignments, recording performance, and establishing gaps for performance all of which saves valuable time for the teacher and makes it easy for the student to use. It is the company’s first post-primary, digital paid-for platform that is not tied to any school textbook. Folens has already launched paid-for digital products in the primary market in oral language. Homework Space is one in a series of products the company is working on for homework and other arenas. “It’s a real game changer for the industry,” says Andrew. “As the market is changing, we are adapting.”
Andrew joined Folens as Sales & Marketing Director in 2015 and, in June 2018, took over as CEO. Before Folens, Andrew had spent 25 years in the tech sector and was working as a sales director when he decided he wanted to try a new direction and possibly something a little more meaningful. As he was thinking of making this shift in direction, he got a call out of the blue about a role in Folens and the rest is history.
As his father was a careers’ teacher and his brother was involved in management training, education was something that always interested Andrew. However, a move away from technology was something that some of his colleagues in the tech industry could not understand. What they did not grasp is that, for any book publisher, the textbook is only the tip of the iceberg and at Folens there was always plans to bring technology more and more into its programmes on a gradual but strategic basis.
“There is so much technology around what the teachers are using in the schools today and this digital inclusive strategy is part of the future of education. I was coming from the tech sector so could understand that side of the business and the industry in general, so it was a good fit.”
When Andrew left school in the late 1980s, he went straight into employment and studied marketing with the Marketing Institute Ireland (MII) at night. It was here that he became attracted to a career in sales and he got his first sales job in 1990. He feels the decision not to go to college allowed him to discover where his skills were before deciding on a career path. For everyone, a choice to go on to further education must be right for them. For Andrew, completing his Marketing and latterly Management degrees were done while benefiting from working at the same time. He believes the role of Folens is to provide outstanding educational tools that helps the teacher deliver the curriculum while simultaneously engaging the students, so that they can achieve their personal best, whatever that may be.
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
I think you must be true to yourself. Be the person you are and do not fake being someone else. I figured this out in my first sales job in the photocopier industry, which is a brutally tough industry to learn your craft. There were guys who were more experienced than me and more accomplished at closing deals. I was not that person. But I was someone who came back to people on time and did what I said I was going to do for them. People bought into me as I was consistent, honest, and true to my word. Consistency and reliability were key, I soon discovered.
As a leader now, whether I am delivering good or bad news, people have to believe that I am true to myself. You cannot fake it all of the time; eventually you will get caught out.
What was the best advice you ever received?
I worked with two great bosses; one I spent 10 years with during my early career and another I spent 18 years with. They both inspired me, and I believed in them. That is what I try to do now; inspire people by being passionate, true to myself and leading as best as I can.
How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?
I think it has changed. I demand a really high standard because that is what I demand of myself, but I have figured out that not everyone is the same. For some people, work is just work so I have learned not to obsess over it when people have different ways of working. Everyone does not always have to work harder, faster. As I matured, I realised that people give their best in different ways. And you cannot ask for more than someone’s best. I have become more zen about that. Working out people’s differences and strengths is part of what all good leaders need to be able to do. No two people are the same.
What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?
In the tech industry, there is a high burn out rate. Education is a lot more even paced, so a different style is needed. I feel that we all benefit as a team from giving back to others less fortunate than ourselves. As a family business, Folens does a huge amount to help people through the Folens Giving programme. For example, we work with the charity Suas which is involved with the eradication of childhood illiteracy. The volunteers from our team in Folens act as reading buddies for children who, for example, do not have anyone to listen to them read or are lacking in confidence. Anytime I have been involved in this programme I am the first to say that it is probably the best hour of my week. We are very fortunate to work in a company that believes that we have an obligation to help other people and should be giving back to our local communities.
What are your favourite tools and resources in work?
We use Microsoft Teams for collaboration which during Covid has been an invaluable tool to connect with people while we have all been working remotely. But for me, outside the people I work with, the biggest resource that we have as a business is data. I am working a lot on trying to improve our data analytics. Without information, you are speculating on why things have happened a certain way, so the power of data is vital. Choosing the right tools is equally important and we have really begun to use Power BI to help us really understand the data from our market.
Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?
It is absolutely vital. Research – including our work with Learnovate — provides data and the analysis that can help inform us what we need to do next when assessing certain challenges. Learnovate is our partner in this area because the skills Learnovate brings to the table match what Folens needs.
From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?
In schools, the future will be all about blended learning. There will be a strong mix of both digital and physical content in the classrooms and at home for many years to come. From a teacher’s point of view, the more supports that we can provide them, the more value that they see in what we do. This can be in the form of digital resources or print content support.
The big issue we face as an industry is to be able to realise value from paid-for content. There is a balance between the value of paid-for content and people being able to access it on demand. There is a huge movement now towards recognising really good material to support what teachers do and people see the value in paying for that. The music, media and film industries have all gone through this and the educational publishing industry is no different.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
Immediately, the focus is on just getting people back to the office in a safe and planned manner. Some people are hesitant and some people are dying to get back to the office, depending on their own personal circumstances. The future, I have no doubt, will be a hybrid model. We have survived Covid as a business without being at the office, apart from those in the warehouse, so I don’t think any business can make the case that everyone needs to be in the office 9-5 Monday to Friday. We need to reset the dial. Employers need to trust employees but employees also need to feel connected so there is a balance to be found. It will take some time to find the happy medium, but the events of the past 18 months do need us to relook at how we work and how we collaborate moving forward.
What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?
I am a great believer in starting with the ‘why’, so I love ‘Start with Why’ by Simon Sinek. I only read two or three pages a night and really absorb it and the learnings from great leaders and companies who have adopted this mind set. If you can crack the ‘why’, you can build a great business. We are on our own journey to do this in Folens, we want our why to be “We Make Great Learning Easy”; we have a bit to go on our journey.
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
Having that trusted third party that you can come to with your problem has been invaluable to us. Sometimes we have a hunch or a gut feeling about a particular area of market research and Learnovate gives us the evidence, the statistics, and the data to help us to make the business choice that we need. What Learnovate brings to the table is first class. It has been a natural fit for us.
What does Learnovate do well?
The calibre of the people, the research and the methodology has always been at the centre of the work with Learnovate. They look at the problem we want to solve and figure out the methodology needed and execute it. Also, given there are funding grants to avail of this support, it is a no-brainer.
What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?
Covid is still affecting us. We are in some ways unique as our customer does not sit at a desk and is not always available to talk, given their role in the classroom, so it has been tough for our sales team to keep connected with teachers. We had to reimagine how to access the customer and how they want to engage not only from a sales perspective but also from a marketing-led approach.
The education industry does not change quickly. Covid has accelerated the pace of technology advances in education, but I think there will still be a balance between text and technology; blended learning. Sometimes technology can provide more challenges than it solves especially when teachers and families do not have the broadband or the devices to engage in an equal way. Blended learning will utilise the best of both worlds.
What have you/your organisation learned from your experience of Covid-19?
Moving forward, Covid might mean the end to as many face-to-face meetings with customers. Many people will continue to work from home for some time to come, but this can be lonely and isolating. Some people do really struggle working remotely full time. Whether it is the isolation, the challenges of enough space and privacy to work effectively or issues with connectivity at home. For some people, the journey to and from the office allows you to make the mental break from work and that is no longer happening. But being back in the office when most people are working from home can equally be as challenging. I think it will be important to continue to invest in our wellbeing – sleep, diet, exercise. The balance is going to be everything; not only in our education, but our work and life and if we can get this right, we may be the better for it.