Transformational Learner-Centered Innovation: A Leader’s View
by Lisa Knight
Lisa Knight is ready to infuse learner-centered innovation in everything we do at Pearson Online Learning Services (POLS). A recent Pearson arrival, Lisa steps into a pivotal role as Vice President for Innovation & Product Strategy. Partners and friends will get to know her well in the months ahead; in the meantime, read about her journey to Pearson, her perspective on innovation, and what she aims to accomplish for learners and partners.
Lisa, tell us a bit about who you are and what you’ve done.
I have over 20 years of experience in strategy and innovation and have spent most of my career at IBM Consulting and PwC Consulting. Along the way, I worked with more than fifteen Fortune® 500 companies and was instrumental in creating IBM Canada's enterprise strategy practice. I’ve been focused on leading clients on their innovation journeys and finding ways to drive new growth through digital technologies.
My own education spans three countries—the US, Canada, and France—and includes digital strategy at Harvard’s executive education program. I also competed in NCAA Division 1 Team Tennis, and that taught me a philosophy I live by: teaming to win. Successful innovation comes from collaboration and co-creation—teaming. Deepening our relationships through innovating together and successful partnering is a win-win for everyone. In NCAA tennis, every point counts whether you play the #1 spot or the #6 spot; everyone plays a role in achieving success. This is vital to innovation as well.
At IBM, I was profoundly influenced by then-CEO and Chairman Ginni Rometty. Her own life story, and how she came up through the ranks to lead IBM, was deeply inspiring to me. And she was an exceptionally powerful advocate for learning. IBM developed its own digital learning platform that offered 300,000+ internal and external courses to its employees. The company mandated 40 hours a year of learning, and I averaged first 80, then 120, over and above work. I knew it was critical to be deeply knowledgeable about emerging technologies to inform innovation strategies for my clients. In short, learning became a fundamental part of the IBM DNA and a core part of who I am and what I value.
How does your experience translate to your role at Pearson?
It matters in at least three ways. The first is technology innovation: helping Pearson and its partners accelerate innovation and use it to grow. For example, I have designed accelerated innovation programs to find new business revenue streams, using an innovation framework that encompassed elements such as global trends analysis, idea generation, value case assessment, architectural design, and prototype definition. What truly creates value is a structured, disciplined approach to innovation.
Second, strategy and leadership, with my experience spanning multiple industries. I bring a breadth of perspective that differs from someone who chose to focus deeply on one industry. To me, innovation requires broader thinking. Having seen and influenced many ways of working in my prior consulting experiences, I can bring that breadth of thinking and ideating as we consider the problems we are solving for.
Third, and most important, I’m a strategist with extensive experience in transformational execution. Real execution experience informs better strategy creation. Effectively implementing transformational change is challenging. Being pragmatic in how to implement comes from experience managing the change from start to finish.
Can you share some lessons about partnering to drive and sustain transformational change?
To start, there needs to be a business or organizational need, an inflection point that makes people recognize change is necessary. Next, there needs to be a willingness to invest. And finally, there must be a commitment at all levels of leadership, because if you haven’t focused on getting people on board, and there aren’t strategies to do so, you won’t succeed.
Sometimes the middle of the organization is forgotten. It’s crucial to put strategies in place to get everyone engaged. It is truly important to involve everyone who’s affected, and that means helping people understand: what does this change mean to me, and what’s my role going forward?
Strategy also needs to be iterative. There’s no such thing as perfect. There’s what you plan for, and the assumptions you make, and when you execute, there are things you didn’t expect. Market factors. Challenges in your capabilities, or your partner’s. You must be prepared to make changes – and, if necessary, pivot.
What’s your view of the role of technology and innovation in online learning?
Learning is certainly at an inflection point. There’s more competition, with a wider set of offerings, from traditional to free, to non-traditional like micro-degrees and stackable certificates. Learners’ needs and expectations have changed. As digital technology continues to transform ways of working, people need to continually gain new skills. Meanwhile, high speed internet and 5G network capabilities enable us to incorporate powerful new technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, to design outstanding, immersive learning experiences.
It's critically important that innovation centers on the learner. “Technology for technology’s sake,” brings no value to learners or our partners. In my experience with technologies ranging from machine learning to blockchain, I’ve learned just how important it is to know who it’s for and what problem or friction point you’re trying to solve. To that end, I'm a strong proponent of design thinking. For us, it’s about starting with empathy for the learner, deeply understanding their challenges and constraints, and what they want to achieve.
During Covid, my teenagers’ schools did a “lift and shift,” focusing on providing access from home. Unfortunately, teachers had to try to figure out the rest. With each student having different learning styles and motivations, it was extremely challenging. I knew there was a need to make this a better experience for both teachers and students. That said, learners, like my teenagers, have become very comfortable online, and it’s changed their expectations for everything they do—and not just for services like Amazon or Uber, but for education, too.
What did you see at Pearson Online Learning Services that made you want to join this team?
This wasn’t a lighthearted decision. I firmly believe there’s enormous opportunity at Pearson, and the factors have been put in place for innovation to succeed here. My conversations with my new executive peers have been phenomenal, and senior leadership has given me a clear vision of where we’re going.
I am excited to say innovation was in flight before I came on board, and Pearson already demonstrated a strong willingness to commit the resources needed to embed innovation throughout our business. Our recent Fast Company 2022 Most Innovative Company award for Pearson+, a convenient new way for students to engage with learning, is a great example. Pearson, and specifically, Pearson Online Learning Services had already decided to invest in my VP-level role to provide the leadership experience, frameworks, and guidance to a team of strategists and innovators who are ready to drive an aggressive innovation agenda. Innovation is a top priority at Pearson. I have really been set up for success.
I quickly came to appreciate an organization that can provide real value across the board to learners. Pearson Online Learning Services excels from course creation through design, launch, and operational execution. It will further support students throughout their learning journeys as we continue to innovate. And, Pearson brings deep insights on the future of learning, as well as emerging trends that are shaping demand for reskilling and new skills as we look ahead to the future and new ways of working.
For me, it all ties back to what Pearson believes: learning is the world’s most powerful force for change. Since joining Pearson, I feel the passion for learning. I see it in the culture, every day. I firmly believe that an inspirational leader enables great things to happen. I am truly inspired by our CEO, Andy Bird, and his vision for Pearson. His influence is enabling innovation to thrive across our organization. Our breakthrough subscription offering, Pearson+ is game-changing. And wait until you see what is coming next!
This is why I’m thrilled to be at Pearson and why it is such a good fit for me. It doesn't get any more exciting than this.