Most schools have a strong sense of identity and belonging among their staff and pupils. But how do you build that same shared identity across a global community of 73 separate institutions of 7,000 teachers educating 40,000 children of all ages? For independent schools group Cognita Schools, an important part of the answer has been a new global HR system, which began rolling out in October last year.
Cognita was founded in 2004 by a former chief inspector of schools in the UK, the late Sir Chris Woodhead, and financed by private equity. Its goal was to build a network of private schools offering a traditional education focused on numeracy and literacy. The group expanded by buying up established schools, acquiring 40 in the UK and adding others in Spain, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Brazil and Chile. It has also opened some new schools, including Stamford American International School in Singapore — now one of its largest — and Colegio Pumahue Chicauma in Chile.
Like any business that grows largely through acquisition, maintaining cohesion across the group has been an important focus. One of the most important elements of the shared set of values that make up 'The Cognita Way' is a sense of global community, which the new HR system supports in several ways, says Dr Barbara Zesik, HR Director Europe, who I met during the UNLEASH conference in London last week:
One of the reasons for putting in an HR system was, how do we connect all of our schools across the globe, and give them that sense of belonging?
... There's a culture shift happening in Cognita to become more of a group and the technology we've put in place is enabling that to happen.
Other reasons for the roll-out were more mundane. As a multinational collection of acquired businesses, Cognita faced the familiar challenge of inconsistent local HR processes. This was exacerbated by the lack of funding for internal systems that's typical of the education sector — particularly among British independent schools that had typically claimed charitable status prior to joining a for-profit group. Most were running their HR administration on Excel spreadsheets, homegrown databases, or even just paper.
Learning and collaboration
The new 'Cognita People' system is based on Cornerstone OnDemand core HR, along with learning and performance management and the vendor's Connect social collaboration tool. A global intranet went live at the same time. Finally having a single source of data on the group's people is an important benefit, but the learning and collaboration components are the most important elements, says Zesik:
The enabling of that global collaboration was one of the key things Cognita wanted to achieve as part of the implementation.
The learning content is mostly focused on education topics, helping keep staff up-to-date with the latest thinking in education. There's also material on organizational topics such as leadership, management, feedback, coaching and communication. On the collaboration side, there are active communities across a range of topics, whether classroom-related such as science and art, or job-related such as job openings and workplace culture.
Staff also collaborate to organize events where pupils can interact with their peers around the world, for example during World Book Day earlier this month, when Cognita classrooms around the world connected over Skype in shared activities.
With half of Cognita's employees being teachers who spend 7-8 hours a day in the classroom, making it accessible and useful to their work has been important in encouraging take-up, says Zesik.
Mobility is an advantage there ... Sometimes it's quite challenging there for them to carve out the time.
Flexible learning experience
The Connect collaboration tool is an integral part of Cornerstone's learning management platform, explains Geoffroy de Lestrange, the vendor's Associate Director Product Marketing EMEA. It is part of the broader learning experience platform, which also includes functionality such as playlists and a subscription service called Content Anytime. The recent acquisition of Grovo adds micro-learning capabilities — enabling the creation and consumption of learning in short, bite-sized segments. It's all part of providing a modern, flexible learning experience that incorporates ad-hoc knowledge sharing and user generated content alongside more traditional formats, he says:
It's the need for flexibility. You do need micro-learning capabilities, but where does information stop and training start? Sometimes you do need different types of content on the same topic, so you have different views on the same topic. Sometimes you need a true curriculum — some things take years to properly learn.
The important part is to have that flexibility. You need to have the top-down and the bottom-up.
The next frontier will be the use of AI, based on analysis of how Cornerstone's 40-million user base interacts with learning content, to make specific learning suggestions based on individual context, he adds.
Schools have always been very good at defining and upholding a culture within their four walls. Replicating that across a global organization is more of a challenge, but modern digital tools and communication capabilities have made it a whole lot easier. This example shows one of the most effective ways of making it work — leaders who set clear values and an HR team that puts the tools in place to support shared development and teamwork.