8 May 2013

Guest blog: Bill C Martin - Values versus Commercialism in Education

Almost everyone you ask - government, parents, young people and the music education sector itself - believes that music changes the lives of children and young people for the better. They believe that under-18s should have access to a broad range of progressive music education experiences, beyond those that happen in the classroom, as articulated in England’s National Plan for Music Education.

Though public funding is still being made available for this the pot is getting smaller and we are being asked to do more with it. This means most hubs and music services must increase their income from traded services. But how do they square their strongly held educational values, ethics and beliefs with the commercial realities of 2013?


Over the years many in the music education sector have been understandably squeamish about the business sector. “Aren’t those nasty sales people just trying to sell us things we don’t really want or need, peddling loaded opinions and trying to mislead us?” they cry. Some companies may have tried it in the 20th century but it would be commercial suicide in the 21st, when negative reactions travel across the social networks at the speed of light.

In my experience, over several decades of walking the tightrope between my own strongly held values and working in the commercial sector, balance is achieved by:

1.    Choosing to place the needs of clients and stakeholders before one's own commercial needs. Without exception!

2.    Choosing to obsess, genuinely, about excellence, providing 'hero' solutions to clients' biggest problems and continually finding new ways to exceed their expectations

Admittedly, there may be occasions when you may feel like you're a turkey voting for Christmas! But what that does is to develop a trusting relationship in which both parties can benefit and excel.

Now, in 2013, I'm being joined on this particular tightrope by increasing numbers of music education hubs and music services that now have to earn far more of their income from traded services than they've had to before. And many are understandably unsure about how to achieve this balance.

From Commodity to Solution

Music education hubs that don't examine client's needs deeply enough run the risk that their services will be viewed simply as a commodity, because the client won't see the value in them. This will tend to move the focus of discussions from value to price. A symptom of this is when hubs notice that schools are opting for the cheapest providers.

So a hub that wants to sustain itself over the coming years must listen to schools, young people, parents, community, Ofsted, Arts Council, partners, local authorities or other relevant admin bodies and staff. From a deep understanding of clients' and stakeholders' top priorities it can then design, define, refine and then deliver the unique value that will meet those needs.

But beware! From a commercial point of view, that value is defined by the client, not the provider. You may have hit on a great offer but if it doesn't even make your clients' top ten priorities, then it's unlikely to engage anyone. If your needs analysis is too shallow or infrequent, or if it seeks only to serve external stakeholders like Ofsted or Arts Council, then it isn’t going to help you, either. If you really want to compete on value, not just on price, you must provide services that become trusted solutions, not just commodities.

The Future

The good news is that there are a number of hubs that are successfully balancing ethics and values with the provision of outstanding and engaging traded services that truly delight their clients and stakeholders. As more hubs seek help to take advantage of the current dose of 21st-century change, they will improve their chances of continuing to develop and deliver programmes that will truly change the lives of the next generation.

Bill Martin works with hubs, music services and business across the UK, providing strategic advice, training and consultancy. His specialisms include leadership coaching and board facilitation, brand and communications strategy and music CPD. Initial meetings are free. http://billcmartin.co.uk/home/

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