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As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Alan Maguire, the co-founder and CEO of ESI, a professional development company responding to increasing global demand from employers for commercial sales talent with a suite of certified skills training courses delivered via its Growth+ digital learning solution.
ESI was founded in Dublin in 2018 by Alan and his long-time business partner Jonny Parkes. Subscribers to ESI’s services can access a range of training programmes designed to give salespeople the skills required to perform at the highest level and add greater value to their business. Courses can be accessed at any time, 365 days a year, through ESI’s digital learning solution.
Alan earned his undergraduate degree in English and History from UCD before spending his early career in the financial sector in London and New York. Following a 10-year spell abroad, he returned home to Dublin where he first partnered with Jonny on building e-learning business Electric Paper into the publicly traded company ThirdForce.
After ThirdForce, Alan and Jonny established Versari, an incubation vehicle for digital businesses and out of which ESI was incorporated in 2018. Both are also partners in Leaf Investments, a fund which invests in learning technology businesses. As an aside, Leaf Investments is backed by Folens – another Learnovate Patron member.
Alan believes ESI’s services are popular with employers as traditional sales training providers are failing to furnish salespeople with the skills required by the market.
“We offer a suite of university-grade credentials which effectively operates as a continuous professional development programme for commercial salespeople. It really doesn’t matter the place or sector the employer is operating in. We know what skills employers globally are looking for in their commercial talent so, if a client is looking for that particular skill set, we have a solution for them. That’s why we have such a diverse client base,” he says.
ESI’s goal is to become the certification standard for professional sales globally, an ambition that has been somewhat facilitated by corporate world’s shift to remote work and learning following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. In simple terms, ESI wants to facilitate the recognition of sales and commercial roles collectively as a highly-skilled, lucrative and aspirational profession – just like any other business function.
Alan continues: “We’re now able to sell and deploy our solution scalably and globally and are delighted to have learners and graduates across a range of demographics from all over the world. The focus now is to grow the business and we hope to continue to do so globally.”
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
One thing I learned very early in my career, when I was working in the financial sector in London and New York, is the importance of protecting and preserving your relationships. You never know when you will cross paths again with a former partner, employee, or colleague. Even now, 30 years later, I’m still connected with former colleagues. We could be exchanging business experiences, nuggets of information or just checking in on each other – the world is so connected now that it’s easier than ever to preserve those relationships. When I think of all my great mentors over the years, this was something I would have seen them do very proactively.
How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?
Over three decades, I’ve gone from a multinational environment to a growth environment to a start-up environment. In that time, I’ve found that whatever my own personal style, a person’s style must adapt to the commercial context they are operating in. The skills you deploy in a multinational in New York in the 1990s are very different from the skills you deploy in a start-up in Dublin in 2023. What’s more, adaptability has taken on greater importance in a post-pandemic world. Hybrid work has forced people to deploy their style both virtually and physically. That’s a challenge and we’re all still coming to terms with it.
What are your favourite tools and resources in work?
The most powerful tool at work is people. One of the things I find fascinating is that no matter the process under discussion at a team meeting, somebody will come up with a tool to automate it. Too often we default to technology because it’s available. I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I want to see how people go about a process efficiently and effectively offline before I leap to a tool. I’ve seen tools that look great on the face of it but ultimately their impact on a process can be limited. And there really are too many tools out there. Process first, technology second. You don’t start with the tech.
In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish companies?
We’re probably a little biased but, if I had to pick one, I would say Workforce EdTech is where the opportunities are now. We’ve been around the industry a long time and I think there is a growing conviction that skills are beginning to take priority ahead of what one might call “knowledge”. In our world, that in many ways is the difference between “learning” and “content”. We believe that the solutions that deliver proven skills development will win in our industry over the coming years. There are big opportunities in building learning solutions that are effective and in which businesses will invest to develop a higher skilled and more productive workforce. It may be an old truism but it is more relevant than ever: the workplace of tomorrow is not about what you know. It’s about what you do with what you know.
Why is R&D important in the learning technology industry?
The bit that’s so often missing from traditional R&D is the connection to industry – the demand side of the commercial equation. In the past, too much R&D in the technology industry has been led by tech. For me, the most valuable R&D incorporates the demand side and use cases as much for the end buyer as end user. What’s great about Learnovate is that it understands that commercial stakeholders are as important in the value chain as the research programme itself. I wouldn’t doubt the value of R&D across the board but it’s far more sustainable and purposeful when it has real-world use cases and a commercial focus.
What are the current trends in learning?
The two trends in learning right now are around AI and skills. On the AI side, the emergence of Chat GPT is causing a lot of controversy in terms of its applications. How AI is effectively and ethically deployed in education is hugely important and anybody working in that space is going to have a very interesting journey ahead of them – particularly if they get it right.
ESI is on the other side of the fence in that we’re focused on skills and employer needs. Employers put a premium on the sustainable development of skills for the long-term; transversal skills that enable people to add value to businesses and be adaptable over time, not learn one specific thing or one specific piece of knowledge. We’re very comfortable to be right in the thick of the skills debate.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
The Covid-19 pandemic has split the world of work into two levels. One is the functional parts of work and this notion of having meetings, methodically going through an agenda, allocating tasks, and updating the team on progress – virtual work can really support that. The other is less tangible. It’s less about processes and actions and more about culture, informal collaboration, engagement, creativity, and, in our world, learning. That is much harder to do when people aren’t bumping into each other in the corridor, overhearing phone calls or hopping into rooms to brainstorm a problem. In our world, whether that’s coaching or developing skills, it has become far more complicated from a future of work perspective.
For us, the future of work is about understanding the different components of work, the things that have been made more efficient by operating virtually and the things that haven’t. Essentially it comes down to whether we are going to leave the things that haven’t been made more efficient behind or are we going to find ways to address them in a virtual or hybrid context.
What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?
The Big Short by Michael Lewis. It’s a great read and teaches us so much about life and business. From a wisdom-of-crowds perspective, it’s fascinating that the whole world adopted this terrible business model of handing out lots of money to millions of people who couldn’t pay it back. The book tells the story of the very few people who looked at this situation and, despite a lot of opposition, had the courage of their convictions to bet against the market. They made an awful lot of money, but the story is really a lesson in persistence and perseverance in real adversity.
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
When you’re a start-up, you are operating on your own – even more so when you’re operating in a virtual world. Learnovate offers a sense of community, of belonging to something bigger, with the number of ways it provides to stay connected with the wider industry community. That’s hugely valuable. Also, as Patron members of a centre of excellence with a global brand, we get to punch above our weight in terms of profile. Whether it’s R&D or access to webinars and events, Learnovate offers access to expertise that we couldn’t dream about on our own. The same goes for bigger companies which get access to disruptive technologies and to different types of expertise that they may not have in their own larger organisations.
What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?
When the pandemic hit, it was a short, sharp shock to our business and our clients. Notwithstanding the fact that we provide a digital learning solution, and you can’t get better than digital learning as a space to be in these days, companies stopped buying things in the beginning. We had to weather that storm. Beyond that initial shock, we found that the pandemic gave us the ability to sell globally without getting on a plane. In a short space of time, we have acquired customers and graduates from all over the world, from Sydney to California and haven’t had to leave Dublin to do that. I’m a big believer in in-person business and meeting customers face to face, but there are dramatic efficiencies in the sales cycle now and they have been facilitated by the removal of physical geographic boundaries and limitations.
What have you or your organisation learned from the experience of Covid-19?
For us as an organisation, the biggest lesson from the pandemic was how we went about engaging our teams virtually. Dealing with a virtual sales team varies greatly from dealing with a virtual tech, finance, or admin team. Each function requires vastly different management requirements. We’re acutely conscious of how learning and development solutions are distributed to teams. The management of people is one thing but development is another so the challenge is around how you enable people to develop their skills when you can’t observe them on a day-to-day basis to see how they behave in the workplace. The dynamics of managing people virtually are complicated but we’re passionate about how organisations are managing the development of staff virtually. That’s our bread and butter.
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