5 Questions That Will Make You Uncomfortable If You Work In Education

It’s an uncomfortable business


Working in education is a tricky and often uncomfortable business. Especially if you want to get paid… And if you work in education sometimes even just using words like money and customers make you feel uncomfortable. You’d better click away now if you’re offended already.

The “Customer” is not a straightforward matter


Still, it gets worse, one part of the problem is trying to figure out who your actual customers are. And this might sound kind of strange, but it’s not a straightforward matter. And your main customer might not be who you think it is.

If you’re like me, you have different kinds of customers. All at the same time. These different kinds of customers often have different (and possibly contradictory) needs and expectations.

Paying versus value creation


So how do you figure out who these customers are? Well, you can start by asking these two questions:

1. Who’s paying?

2. Who are you creating the most value for?

You might not need to, but sometimes you may need to decide if your main customer is EITHER the person or organisation that you are creating the most value for, OR the one who is paying you the most. This can be important depending on what key deliverables are for your work.

The tension


There is not always a tension between who’s paying versus who you’re creating the most value for. But sometimes there is. People have different needs and wants. So, how will you deal with this? There’s only one answer:

  • Embrace the tension

The Money


One way to start thinking about this tension is to follow the money. Ask yourself the question again: Who’s paying?

If your education programme or training is mostly (or completed) funded or subsidised by a government department or similar agency then you better start thinking of them and treating them like a valued customer. Their investment is paying for or subsiding your delivery, outcomes, and probably ensuring that you can pay the rent.

There’s nothing like the promise of continued employment to incentivise your work…



However, there’s still the issue of value creation. One way of defining a customer is to determine who you are creating the most value for. Which of these groups are you creating the most value for?

  • The funding agency or other investors?
  • Your learners, i.e. the ones in front of you in the training environment?
  • Your learners’ employers?
  • Your learners’ learners, staff, or clients (if you’re working with tutors and trainers like we do)?

It’s complex


So… are your learners the ones allowing you to pay your bills and meet payroll? For us, it’s more like our learners (and their learners) are the combined end-users of the training that we deliver. They don’t pay, but we do create value for them.

Our customers then are actually a combination of our learners’ employers and a government funding agency (these two groups pay for the training together) as well as the learners themselves (who are non paying customers).

So… understanding who your customers are and getting paid in the education business is a bit more complex than just shipping widgets.

It’s seldom a simple business transaction. The main thing to realise is that organisations and government departments that fund education and training are like venture capital investors. And learners can be customers too, even if they are non-paying customers.



Finally, after you’ve figured out whatever complicated and often contradictory mixture of customers you’re attempting to create value for, you also need to ask these questions for each customer group:

3. What do they really want?

4. Are you really delivering the right results?

5. What’s the return on investment for each?

6. Who’s getting the best return on investment?

So, tar and feather me with the brush of economic reductionism… These last questions make me uncomfortable. But they’re great questions to keep asking.

Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

4 thoughts

  1. This is a hard one and I have been trying to find a balance between giving my best as a trained teacher to my learner (is your best really your best) which at the time I think it is, and giving my organisation value for their money. In my training I learned there is something that teachers can do called ‘teach to the test’, where we can teach our learners all the formulas they need to know to acquire the qualification. Of course the learner receives what he is aiming for in the end, the certificate. However, dare I say it, ‘Is it true learning’. I like for my learner to discover the philosophy of becoming a life-time learner by ‘discovering learning’, that they will become a lifetime learner, with the desire to always want to learn and appreciate something new every day.

    1. Yes… you’ve got it… that’s the tension. Sounds like you’re on to it though. Well done. Creating lifelong learners is really what adult education is all about.

  2. Good point Michelle. The whole education business is full of tensions. You could ask all of Graeme’s questions to a teacher as well. Who is my client? The organisation I work for, the Government dept who pays them, or the learners? They each have subtle differences regarding their needs and wants.

    Another approach to following the money, is to follow the power. They are normally the same thing but once the Government is involved it changes. The money is provided by the tax-payer, (and they are the client seeing as they pay) but the power is centralised in the hands of a few in Govt departments – distilled down to a few individuals. These individuals are influenced by a different set of forces, that have little to do with the tax-payer, or the stream of money taken to fund education. They are funded by a separate money stream and hence the ‘follow the money’ strategy may not be effective in this case -as they have no skin in the game. Their drivers are more to do with personal security, ambition and reputation (this applies to all of us of course).

    Adam Smiths’ ‘invisible hand’ is unable to work in such an environment.

    The skills you need to make a buck in this business! Making widgets would be easy.

    1. hmmm… nice one… if not Adam’s Smith’s invisible hand, then it still possibly boils down to individual self interest on the part of those gate keepers…

      If only I’d studied widget making…!

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