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How easy is it to diversify in ELT?

As attention turns to diversification, we urge a note of caution. It's great to think big and imagine complete change, but in reality, the chances are your most successful new thing will be an incremental shift from what you're already known and sought out for.

The lesson from a crisis such as this, which creates havoc with your organisation’s income, is that reliance on a solitary product or service can be dangerous.

It’s an understandable issue. Few of us had ‘global pandemic’ down as our next big challenge in a year expected to be dominated by Brexit. But we’re here, and we’ll have to deal with it - and, health issues aside, one obvious challenge to do that is to find ways to diversify your products and services, so as to multiply your revenue streams. But how easy is that?

Well, not very. It’ll need some thought. And the first thought should not be ‘can we do it’, but ‘does anybody want us to?’ You need to focus first on providing value for your current and potential customers. Does anybody want this right now? Or in the future? You might, for example, conclude that the need for specific business language courses may be tempered by the fact that travel is rather restricted at the moment. Can it be tailored to the current Zoom culture? How many times can you translate ‘I think you’re on mute?’ Or is it a service that is better suited to more normal times in the (hopefully) semi-near future when businesses are functioning and at least some travel is feasible? And do you have something to replace it?

For many, the near and medium future will centre around delivering digitally, but don’t assume that changing the delivery mechanic creates enough of a new product to create extra revenues. Is there still an audience who wants to learn what you’re offering? And will they want it delivered online? Sometimes you’ll only know by trying but talk to your team, and to consumers if possible, and see whether you’ve got the right mix.

It’s not enough to envisage a new service, you have to be able to deliver it too. You may have had a fantastic idea, but do you have the skills in your team to deliver it? The race for diversification shouldn’t be at the cost of quality. If you don’t have the in-house expertise to deliver a specialist product, then you may be able to hire in, but does that harm your margins? And if you want to create digital products - subscription lessons perhaps - do you have the technical and IT capacity to deliver? There needs to be a lot of honesty in your assessment of your skills and capacity. ‘Hoping’ won’t be good enough.

Diversification, in a mild irony, should be built on your existing strengths instead. If you have a reputation for language teaching in certain specialisms - law or business, for example - then how can you re-package that? If you’re notable for immersion teaching, can that be replicated in digital form? Thinking outside the box is great and stretches the limits of what’s possible, but be realistic - is suddenly teaching language skills for plumbers really going to help?

But you can expand around your core products. You may be known for certain things, but you surely also do sales and marketing, and customer relations, and market research. There may be a host of skills in your organisation which can be ‘sublet’ to companies outside of the industry. And further to the subletting - if you have buildings which are currently empty, can you rent out the rooms to companies who are struggling to meet capacity for in-demand services?

Think also of where translation skills might be handy and offer that up as an opportunity. Companies now reliant on video conferencing with overseas clients might welcome an interpreter on the call, they might want someone to translate documents or records of conversations. The language skills of your team extend way beyond the classroom, it’s just whether that’s a productisable service.

And don’t forget all those school age children at home driving their parents up the wall with home schooling. Can you re-deploy your team to be tutors? Again, this will need turning into a recognisable product and need marketing, but it can also be a long-term revenue stream after all this is done, and help you become more embedded in your local community, which can never be a bad thing.

So approach diversification from the point where you already feel confident you have the services and skills and re-package those, before thinking more widely. You can create new sources of income to preserve your organisation in the short term, and make it much more robust in the long.