On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, GLG President and CEO Alexander Saint-Amand talks about running a learning platform for investors and business professionals.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Record Decode coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the star of “Black Panther,” but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode at Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play Music or wherever you listen to podcasts, or just visit Record.net/podcasts for more.
Today I’m in New York City with a very bad voice, and I’m here with Alexander Saint-Amand — what a name — the CEO and president of GLG, a learning platform that connects businesses and investors with experts on a range of subjects. He’s been with the company for 20 years and has been CEO since 2006. Alexander, welcome to Recode Decode.
Alexander Saint-Amand: Thank you for having me.
Let’s talk a little bit about your business because I don’t think people know what you do. When you’re saying a learning platform, people usually think of Udacity or one of the other platforms and things like that. Give me an outline on how you got to where you got.
Yeah, I’d love to compare us to some of those platforms too, but GLG’s a one-to-one learning business for professionals. I hate to use analogies, but the easiest way to think about it is Uber meets Harvard. It is a one-to-one learning business, like I said. On the one hand, we have a group of companies, a few thousand companies that want to talk to various experts on various subjects, learn from experts on lots of different things, and so we have this membership on the other side of about 750,000 professionals who are available to teach.
Like calling an Uber, you tell us what you want to learn or ...
Right, such as.
Just because I was preparing for this, I looked through some of our projects this morning. To name a few that are in the news, we’re doing work on school security today. That might not surprise you. We had everyone from a really big tech company that you probably know down to a startup looking at how schools do security — and not in a political way, like what guns should or shouldn’t be there, but just how does the security work in the school.
We’ve done work today also actually comparably on hotel security after Las Vegas. I can keep going down this political line. We took a client to see the wall, the border wall with Mexico, and had a group of people who understand border security lay out how it actually works in real life. The client was not Donald Trump, just for the record, but was someone else looking at the subject.
A lot of stuff can be really boring. We did the first project this morning. When I looked at the list this morning at 6:30, the first project was on how reservoirs are designed and reservoir engineering in Latin America.
This is all done online? Their clients of yours? Talk a little bit about your background. How did you get to doing this first? Then we can talk about how it works.
I think for you, you remember Guru.com?
Yes I do. Explain for the people what Guru.com was. There were a lot of them.
Guru.com was ... There were a lot of them. We’re actually one of them, although you don’t know that. We like to say, when we went to raise money for this idea, we talked to all the same people. They talked to Guru and Elance and ExpertNet, and you remember some of those, but there were more.
Yeah, what was the other one? There was another one, I can’t remember. It degenerated into Wiccans and something else.
Right. I like to say phone sex and astrology.
Yeah, phone sex and astrology.
I’m not sure that’s true.
Wiccans was a big part of it. I can’t remember what it was.
Yes, it was. I don’t remember that one either, but I know what you’re talking about.
You need a Wiccan at any time.
You don’t have Wiccans.
We don’t. Guru, if you remember, started out with real aspirations to get great experts. The idea was what it sounds like, you find a guru.
You could meet them over at a digital platform.
You can find them through the digital platform, but the idea I think on Guru is that you talk to them over the phone or you meet them in person. As you know, they raised a lot of money. I think it was ’98, ’99, somewhere in there, right when we were raising money. In fact, they announced their round a week after we went to see the same venture firms.
We were stuck because they raised a few hundred million, and what they do is they opened up the thing to anyone, and so you go to Guru and if they have the head of neurology at Stanford on there, you can come and say, “Hey, I have a headache. Can you help?” The problem is that no matter how much money you pay the head of neurology at Stanford, he’s not interested in that question. He might be if you have a real problem, but he thinks it’s beneath his pay grade, he’s not interested, and he doesn’t learn through teaching that. He drops off, and it devolves.
Adverse selection, which is the big problem. I mentioned Uber meets Harvard. There’s a Harvard part, which is you have to qualify the student and the teacher. We went a different way. We recruited the faculty at Duke and Stanford and Harvard Medical schools, and we invited them to teach.
What was the premise to them at the time? Because this was, what, in the ’90s, right?
It was ’99. It was the booming of the biotech.
Right, before everything went down.
Before everything went down, the booming of biotech, and our first customers were investors who were looking to learn about all these new things that were happening in biotech. We went to the universities and said, “It’d be good for you to share your actual expertise.” In other words, investors are making decisions based on equity research reports, based on whatever, other written materials they can find, and shouldn’t they talk straight to the source.
By the way, you’ll learn from talking to them too. It was a little bit based on some jealousy between Duke and Stanford at the time. I could get into the politics of it. I remember Stanford has always been connected with the venture community, Duke wasn’t. The dean at Duke wanted Duke to be a center of thought leadership, and so he invited a bunch of his faculty to teach with us.
You were just saying you wanted to qualify the people who are talking because it can devolve into just anybody can get a ... A lot of them were open platforms for experts.
Yeah, which continues today. You saw a few years ago some of the folks behind Twitter launched, I think it was called Ask Jelly. There was Quora, there’s been Yahoo Answers, LinkedIn Answers.
I’m blanking on the one that was back then. It was another one besides Guru. It went down real hard.
I want to know, too. Guru went down hard, too.
It’s like Answers.com, too, went hard. I’ll remember it.
It wasn’t Answers. The idea has a long intellectual history in the Valley of what about all that knowledge that’s in people’s heads.
How can you get it out and sort it out?
How can you get it out?
Then you apply Uber to that idea, and you think, “Let’s just connect everyone.” Learning doesn’t work like that. I always tell people we are like eBay for learning or Uber for learning, but learning is not selling a camera on eBay and it’s not finding a car. The bar is much higher. You asked, why, the Duke faculty members, did they want to teach a group of investors? Because they learn through teaching.
Right. There also were a bunch of other things that are slightly in your area, not just so much the Udacity’s or the MOOCs, but the ones where you’d want to learn to play the guitar or you’d want to learn to do a lot of things and they would link you. They were essentially a linking service. Then others, the one that was sold to LinkedIn, and that was sort of computer learning.
Right. Those were online courses.
Those are online courses. I think our core idea is that, and I can make analogies, but our core idea is that one-to-one or customized learning is the new learning thing. In other words, making one-to-many-many is one idea. That’s what a lot of amazing companies are doing.
Right. That’s how universities have gone online, right?
That’s right. That’s the MOOCs.
You can learn at MIT from anywhere in the world.
Yeah. The learning methodology is the same. I watched a lecture at MIT. I watched a lecture on my phone. Now of course Sarah and others have made their focus more on skills training and skills development, which I’m fascinated by. The question is what’s the delivery mechanism of that learning? The conceit of all those companies is that if you just take one-to-many and make it one-to-many-many-many, it’s going to change the way everyone learns. Our idea is not that. It’s that customization is the key to the learning and that people don’t really understand what the dynamics are that take place if you want to scale one-to-one, but if you do accept those constraints, that one-to-one is the most powerful method of learning.
Take the example I used here: As a company you want to work on school security. What do you read about that, that teaches you how it really works?
You can search Google, right, by yourself?
You can search Google.
You can send some intern in to get you as much information about it.
You can pull the other report, and those things are important. You should do those things. Then when it really comes time to start figuring out what you want to do, you need perspective from people in the space about how would your idea work in that market and what if you did this, what if you did that. It’s the development of perspective, the development of I guess you would call it wisdom on the subject that really only takes place, just like this conversation. You can learn a lot about GLG, but you’re going to ask me questions and learn more about GLG.
Right. How does that differ than say other ways of people learning or consultants, really? That’s what Bane does. That’s what all the other consultants [do]. How did you differentiate?
Bane, McKinsey, etc., they deliver you what you should do, their ideas. You say, “Should we open in Australia?” and they deliver you a report. “What should we do with our business?” They deliver you a report. I would say that we’re not that. We don’t tell you what to do. We don’t tell you the answer, per se. We teach you about things. You want to learn about markets. Most of the top strategy consultants do use us, most of the biggest companies in the world use us, or many of them do, but they don’t use us for the same thing that they use a consultant for.
You could call what we do is consulting, but it isn’t really. It’s the average interaction between, we’ve done millions of projects. Our members have answered, I believe, almost 100 million questions on our various sites, but the primary experience is a phone call.
It’s a one-on-one.
It’s a one-on-one phone call or a meeting.
Go back again to the ’90s. You started this, Guru got all this money and there was three or four others that were like this. Talk about what happened. Your original premise was the same thing that you’re doing now?
Our founding story’s a little different. The company’s called GLG. It was originally called Gerson Lehrman Group. It was started in ’98 by a fellow named Gerson and a fellow named Lehrman, so it’s Gerson Lehrman Group. The original idea that they had come up with was to start a publishing company and so they raised some money for the publishing company. It’s a long story and I’ll tell it to you because it relates to the heart of the matter. I joined them, and we came up with this other idea to do this, and we went out to raise money for it, but we didn’t and Guru did and other people did.
The publishing company didn’t work either, so we repurposed the capital from the publishing company and put it into this idea. This idea worked. Even as Guru was fairly immediately struggling, we developed a first group of customers who loved the idea and started working with us and so it took off.
There is a digital element to it because you link ... People find you or not? How do you look at it that way? I want to get later into talking about where learning is going.
Yeah. Great. The digital component is just how do you scale. The digital side of GLG is fairly straightforward, but it’s not that different from Uber. There’s a car around the corner, and you now know where it is because of GPS. GLG is just how would you know who the best people are on the subject? We use a lot of different technology to find the best people and what they want to teach or what they have to teach, and then we spend just as much time figuring out, if you’re a customer of ours, what you want to learn. To do that at scale requires a lot of systems, but not super-fancy systems. Of course we use AI for it. Of course we have what you might expect, but it’s a combination of the idea combined with simple systems.
Give me an example. Someone will come, like school security. What happens then in that? They would contact you?
They work with someone at GLG. You can go to our site, but in general you’re covered by someone. We have a few thousand employees, someone covers you. You call them and you say, “I want to learn about school security, and here’s what I’m thinking about.” They will go through our database. They’ll invite new people. We’ll ask people in the membership to invite other people. It fairly has scale. We want to invite a lot of people to this idea and hopefully have you connected with someone on the phone within a few hours. It’s not quite on demand, like 15 minute on demand, but it’s on demand as in same-day or next-day.
Right. How do you vet the experts then? That was one of the issues, too, is the quality, as with any of these platforms, the quality of the expert matters.
We recruit because we think you’re an expert in something. Yes, we have a lot of inbound people applying, but in general we’re recruiting you because we heard you’re Kara Swisher and we think you know something about something.
I have no expertise in anything.
You have expertise in podcasts, for example.
That’s such an important point because people don’t really know what they have to teach either. We will recruit a former Fortune 500 CEO and they’ll ask us, “What do you think I have to teach?” They have a lot to teach about being a Fortune 500 CEO or in a sector or farmer or whatever it is, or interacting with the White House or managing corporate culture or whatever the subject is. They don’t really know what their real thing is.
That would be valuable.
That would be valuable or that they’re the best at teaching. We always say that everyone loves to teach, they just don’t know quite what do they want to teach and where they want to teach it. Not everyone wants to go move to Boston and teach a course, but everyone does love sharing their expertise with the right people.
Right. They go and you link them up and that’s it, and the fee is paid? How do you figure that out?
We invite a lot of people to do the project. Everyone can opt in or opt out. They fill out a questionnaire of what they do or don’t know. They go through some legal and compliance and contracting type things. They’re then available. Then we pass along their information and their biographical background and the answers to those questions to a customer. The customer then gets to make a decision about who they want to talk to, and then there’s a scheduling system in our sites and stuff that helps them schedule a call.
Then a fee that you ...
Then afterwards, the member bills their hourly fee. The customer pays us in a variety of different ways.
Right, different ways. When you’re thinking about where expertise is going, why do they need you? You can find everybody.
Every reporter always asks us that question, and everyone in Silicon Valley asks that question. Most people don’t really know how to find the expertise they’re looking for, and they’re not used to the process you would go through to find ... I was a reporter also, just for a year.
What did you report?
I covered news for Bloomberg. I covered the Bundesbank for much of the year for Bloomberg.
Oh man, that’s enough to get you out of journalism.
I loved it, actually.
I loved everything about it.
I did. I loved everything about it. I’ll tell you how I got to this from that, but most people don’t know what they want to learn, exactly. They don’t know exactly who they want to talk to. They come in with a question, like, “I think there’s more to learn about school security. Where do I go? Who would I talk to?” They wouldn’t necessarily think, just to use an example, to talk to the people who now run security at the various concert halls in Paris. Those folks have thought a lot about security after what’s happened there, and so they are great people to teach just maybe a new way of thinking about it.
How do you entice them to want to teach? Money?
People like teaching good students. The key to GLG is making sure that ... The reason why it’s not a consumer idea yet is because you have to qualify the student. The problem with Yahoo Answers is just all sorts of people are asking random questions, and are they worth teaching? Same with Google.
Also, crazy. We’re going to talk about that and more when we get back. We’re here with Alexander Saint-Amand. He’s the CEO and president of GLG, a learning platform that connects businesses and investors with experts on a range of subjects. This is an area that Silicon Valley’s been trying to tackle for years, and we’ll talk about how that’s going when we get back.
Today I’m in New York City with a terrible voice, and I’m here with Alexander Saint-Amand, the CEO and president of GLG. It’s a learning platform. We’ve just been talking about how GLG got created in the bust, essentially right before the bust. Let’s talk about the idea that Silicon Valley thinks they can do this through AI and everything, knowledge. Let’s talk about where it’s going from a technological point of view, because what you’re doing is pretty traditional. You’re linking people with others, not unlike LinkedIn or any of the other, or Tinder or anything. You’re linking people.
It may be more like Tinder than LinkedIn. I like to say that part of GLG is just the idea that there’s just a vacuum created by LinkedIn. You’re connected to all these people, but you’re not really connected. You don’t really have a way or there’s no human connection. Our connection is we want you on the phone with someone talking to them. We want you in a room with someone that’s the very best person to reach and learn from, to teach or to learn from. What’s the question about AI exactly?
No, the idea is Silicon Valley is trying to get at this problem with Quora and stuff like that. They’ve been trying to automate it forever, the idea of where knowledge resides and how you access it from people. Essentially they’re going to get to downloading your brain, but that’s a different thing.
Downloading your brain is a different thing.
Well, it’s not.
It’s certainly within the broad long-term wheelhouse, yeah, but I think just all of them don’t accept what makes learning work and why is Harvard a place that you want to teach or learn.
Because you can’t get in. Sorry.
Well no, that’s part of it though, because there’s admissions.
I can’t get in, but go ahead. I just can’t.
I think you can. There are admissions and you know that the student’s smart, you know the community is smart. That’s an important constraint. Once you remove that constraint, the class might not be as interesting at Harvard.
I would just say you just have to start with what works in the existing learning institutions and think how it applies once you apply some basic matching, LinkedIn or Uber whatever.
Talk a little bit about where it’s going though, because every couple of months I get one of these of how we’re going to change learning, how people are going to learn differently. A lot of it is trying to automate it or trying to consolidate IT into it. A lot of it recently around AI, this is how you’ll be learning, this is how it transforms that.
Yeah, and I’m sure you’ve thought about it with your kids, too.
Teaching. I think there’s something so wrong with schools, but that’s another ...
There’s a really cool study that I like to just always point to, which is if you take the average math class, there’s a bunch of kids. Some kids are two years ahead today, some students are two years behind. That’s statistically how big the gap is on any given subject. We totally get that little piece, they’re way ahead, they’re way behind. Well, if they’re way ahead, they’re bored. And if they’re way behind, they’re confused. The teachers can’t solve for that because teacher’s got 25 students.
Has to teach to the program.
To the mean or median, whatever. The question is, how would you solve that? There are tons of cool technologies for solving that and testing, using AI or otherwise, just more simple algorithms to make sure you get questions on things you don’t understand and no questions on the stuff you’ve already mastered. Lots of software works that way today. Adult learning doesn’t take place like that. You don’t have a chance to just have exactly the right teacher.
And if you think about it, you say that where teaching is broken, imagine executive education for a second. You go to take a course on marketing for two weeks with 50 of your peers from totally different-size companies who have totally different levels of expertise. What’s the average level in that class? It’s just average. It’s by definition going to be really easy for you on one part and too confusing for you on the other part. What you need is exactly the right course with exactly the right teacher. That’s not that hard to deliver as long as you don’t just try to scale it just so fast. As long as you don’t just open the idea of ...
The way we’ve taught is not that way. It is teaching to the mean and the idea of learning that is completely customized is still far away.
Yeah. I always say that GLG’s first customers were some of the best investors in the world.
They wanted some expertise on biotech or whatever the heck they were looking at.
Biotech or anything.
“What is this bitcoin?” You’re probably doing a lot of that, right?
We do a lot on cryptocurrency, we do a lot on cryptocurrency security. I always say to people, a lot is that fancy stuff, a lot of it is how do reimbursement systems work for hospitals in Eastern Europe? It’s super interesting if you’re trying to figure out are there any businesses in that space.
Where do you find that expert?
People who run hospitals in Eastern Europe and Turkish veterinarians, for example.
What if they’re not good runners of hospitals? That’s the problem you run into. Anyway, go ahead. Sorry.
That’s a different question, and I can talk about it, but the main point is that the best investors, first of all, they’re looking for perspective, not an answer. There’s no answer to how it’s run, it’s just a perspective, “What if we did this? What if we did that?” They would never settle for a report. You’ve never met someone at Sequoia that says, “Oh I just read the report on the hotel industry, and so I’m backing Airbnb.”
It doesn’t happen. They go and try to figure out what are the weaknesses in the space? Where is there opportunity? What if they did this in this city and this country? What would happen? They never have accepted the report as the answer. Of course, they’re the best investors with all the resources, so of course they can do that. The question is how many people can do that. I think eventually everyone will be able to do that. No one will accept that their learning is just a one-to-many course, because no one ever learned well that way.
The innovation is not that high in making that same course interaction, teacher/student relationship just available to more people. That’s just not that innovative. I’m less focused on AI than I am on the same thing, I use an analogy with drugs. It used to be everyone took the same drugs for cancer and now because of genomics, because of the availability of information. Yes, because of AI, but because of AI and the development of those drugs, you will get a more and more tailored drug. Same with your learning.
It’s interesting when you think about that, because we don’t think about learning that way ever. We just don’t. It’s one of the few things, health care is the other one, that hasn’t changed that much because of digitization or the ability to do that, to connect people in the same way. Dating has changed drastically, if you think about how good it’s got. Good or bad, depending on how much you like those services, but they’ve solved the problem that analog hasn’t been able to solve.
Everyone knows that education is broken in some way, when I look at some of my kids’ stuff or just myself. I don’t learn at all. People don’t learn all day long about things. I think you read the internet is what you do.
You read the internet.
Right. Google has been a learning mechanism for a lot of people. “Let’s look it up and find out.”
Yeah, it is, but who says, “Gosh, five years ago I googled it and that really changed my life”?
Right, no. 100 percent. I remember what I Google.
It’s not that there’s not enough information on Google, it’s that learning doesn’t take place totally by reading. You can learn a lot by reading something, but the question is how do you really grow, how do you learn?
I always like to say the MBA is one of those incredibly broken things. Not because you shouldn’t go or something like that, but because when you leave it, you don’t know any business. You listen to a bunch of lectures, but you can’t fire someone. You have no actual business skills.
It’ll be so much better if you apply into Harvard, you got in. Now we know something about you, but then you spent the next five years in a series of small group learning experiences in companies. You spent a year in product development at Google, you spent a year in finance at Goldman. You spent a year in the best companies, and you really learned through those experiences, which would be much closer to a traditional guild or apprenticeship in Europe.
Is that a new business for you, the new way of learning?
Well, I’ll say one more thing about it, that the faculty at those schools are typically not that happy with the experience either. They have this very specific expertise. Frances Frei’s studying culture. She goes to Google to apply it.
Uber. She’s at Uber.
Sorry, Uber to apply it.
She picked the Mount Everest of horror shows.
That’s right, because what she wants to work on is that problem. That’s her thing.
Good luck, Frances. I still don’t think you can do it. Sorry.
Maybe she can’t, but you see why she did it.
Because she’s put it at the Everest of that, what she doesn’t want to teach necessarily ...
You’re going to die in the crevasse of ...
The crevasse of non-ethics, but go ahead. Sorry.
She may, but she will learn from that. And I’m sure, I don’t know this, I don’t know her, but I would imagine that she gets to apply all the things that she’s been working on.
Whereas if she goes to teach at business school, she just teaches introductory entrepreneurialism, business leadership, these generic courses. People love to teach the thing they really know and care about. Basically the whole system is built on old matching technology that should be replaced.
Old, people self-select, you mean?
No, meaning you would have to aggregate people in a classroom, so I guess that’s just the number of people that can connect. The new matching would say that Frances’s best students are Uber, Huawei and a company that’s trying to scale in Europe, and those are the thing people who are wrestling with culture the most and so those should be her students. She should still be a Harvard faculty member in teaching those students. The old world said only the people that can come to Boston can therefore be in the class.
Talk about how learning has to change then. Where does it go and how does digital technologies help that? Obviously people are mobile. People are listening to a lot more. They’re consuming tons of podcasts, a lot of educational podcasts, things like that. VR has this enormous capability of changing ... VR/AR, really, or mixed reality. I think that’s the term that we like to use now. Talk a little bit about how that changes. You’re just doing better matching, essentially. If people have a problem, you’re finding their solutions for them.
We like all those technologies. If a GLG match can take place through VR or anything you want to call it, we’re very happy about that. What we’re interested in is we’re interested in two questions, which is what do people want to learn? I use an example of when you call us about schools, for example. Once you do a project, let’s say, on school security, we should be able to recommend a project to you on hotel security, because if you’re interested in one, you’re probably interested in the other.
You’re like Netflix.
“If you like this movie, you might like this.”
That’s right. That’s really important, because if you think about Harvard, you don’t just go to Harvard and pick all the things you want to learn. That’s not the thing. The thing is that they also can recommend, if you want to study classics, these are the things you have to know in classics.
We aim to be like that and we operate like that, meaning much of what you do at GLG, maybe 70 percent of it, is stuff you initiate, but 30 percent is the stuff that we’re recommending. We spend a lot of time on that. Similarly, we want to spend a lot of time figuring out what you want to teach, which is just as hard. Most people that join our membership ...
These are the teachers?
Yeah, if you’re the head of neurology at Stanford and you study the A45-B antigen as a target in breast cancer or something like that, then you know that’s what you have to teach.
You might want to teach guitar, but go ahead.
You might want to and some of them are probably qualified to, but that’s not your primary area of expertise. Whereas if you’re a general executive, you may not know. You run a large sales organization, you may not know what you actually know about running a sales organization or management culture or anything.
Tell me about what people do want to learn. What are the things that you specialize in?
We started with science, so a lot of what we do is still science. The big buckets are technology regulation and globalization. Those are I think the three big buckets. The last one’s probably personal development.
Let’s go through them. Technology, meaning how to do things?
Technology, so, “How does that A45-B antigen function as a target in breast cancer,” let’s say, “and is it a reasonable target and how does it work and why does it work.” That’s just because medical science is where we started, but there are plenty of examples there. In regulations, it’s, How can I open a business today in Venezuela? What will the government accept? I run a copper business and I want to expand from Brazil into Venezuela.”
“Don’t.” There’s the short answer, but if you did want to and you knew certain constraints, how would you think about entering that market and what would you need to do? Globalization is, “I know my business” — same example — “I know my business in Brazil but I don’t know it in Venezuela.” “I understand this business very well in China and we’ve expanded all over Europe, but we don’t understand the United States market yet.”
The last bucket is personal development, just straight up, “I’m the head of Merck North America and I want to keep growing as an executive. How do I think about my core professional development goals?” Which you can say is more like coaching.
Right. There’s the coaches, yeah.
I give you some learning buckets. There’s of course coaching. There’s consulting. There’s executive education. There’s market research. I would say all of those categories and more are disruptible on some level by a more customized model, in the same way that Michael Dell didn’t really change the nature of the computer you can get.
No, just how you put it together.
Yeah, just made it much more customizable. They did that through a very particular business decision, which was just not to pay the manufacturer until they bought the customized pieces. One of our core ideas is we just don’t pay for any of the learning until the customer needs it. That allows us to have many, many, many, many more courses, effectively millions of courses available.
Same with Amazon. When it launched, they didn’t buy the books until after the customer ordered the books so they could have a couple million books and Barnes & Noble was stuck. This is the long tail theory. The long tail’s so important to learning. What people need to learn is often in the long tail, the right teacher is often in the long tail.
Interesting. When we get back, we’re going to talk more about where learning is going. I’d really like to think about how people are going to learn in the future, if it’s going to be a lifelong thing or students learn now. I don’t know if you saw last night the students at the Florida high school that got attacked, they had a teacher on there. Did you see her?
I didn’t see her.
Oh she was fantastic. She was trying to get the person from the NRA to explain the Second Amendment and how it started and she goes, “And I need supporting explanations.” I just had a really bad flashback to high school and they’re teaching the same way, which was funny.
We’ll talk about where learning’s going and how it changes in a digital space, because I think you’re going to see a ton more learning that way, because the way, again, schools are done, you create a Harvard and people go there, it doesn’t make any sense going forward.
Today I’m in New York and I’m here with Alexander Saint-Amand, the CEO and president of GLG. It’s a learning platform that connects businesses, investors and experts on a range of subjects. I want to talk about the future of learning, where it’s going, because when you think about this, what you’re doing is analog, but you’re linking people using a platform to do so. Where do you imagine the future of learning is going?
Again, as I said, it’s one of the few things that has resisted digital. Although there’s plenty of courses online and things like that, we still go to schools or take courses, or it’s very physical. You talk about doing things physically. When you think about your business going forward, how do you imagine it changing?
I just think always about the personalization of it, and I don’t really necessarily ...
Care how it’s delivered.
I don’t really care how it’s delivered per se. I don’t really think the innovation and delivery has been much innovation. Yes, the internet makes it possible to watch a course that was taught across the country and around the world, and that’s important because ...
More people have access.
Yeah, more people have access and for certain things, particularly base skill development or write and learn to code or learning base math, Khan Academy. I mean these things are incredible, but they don’t change the nature of the learning. The nature of the learning comes down to how are we interacting. There are of course historical precedents for this. There’s, I wish I knew the word, I think it’s chavrusa or something. It’s the Jewish tradition of debate that they teach in yeshiva and you’re paired up with someone else and you just keep debating.
I saw “Yentl,” but go ahead.
I didn’t see it in “Yentl” but I see it in Israel.
I’ve seen “Yentl.”
That process, for example, is really powerful, I think, or they wouldn’t have been doing it for a few thousand years, and it’s not a piece of the methodology. It’s probably closer ...
It’s not even slightly digital.
Not even slightly digital.
Do you think, again, Silicon Valley’s really pushing on the idea that all learning will be digital going forward, do you think that’s just not so? Well, until you can put the chip in your head.
I think the digital piece of the match — like what do you know now and why is it that you need more help with that — is really powerful, those tests in the systems. I think there’s also game-based assessments of nonspecific qualities that are really interesting in terms of what do I need to learn, but once it’s, “What do I need to go learn?” I think there’s so much proof that a conversation is the only thing that’s adaptive enough to keep up with the person, because remember, it’s two years ahead, two years behind any given subject, but it’s any given minute, any given subject, you’re constantly a little ahead, a little behind. You’re following me a little bit on what I’m saying, you’re a little behind.
Conversation is just so powerful to achieve that. Just to make it real, let me bring you back to the founding story, if you don’t mind, in terms of the personal story I think lays out how you would think about it too. When I was in high school, my mom got sick and she was diagnosed with some idiopathic cortical atrophy.
I don’t even know what that is.
Exactly. That’s the point. It’s idiopathic, meaning we don’t know why. Cortical atrophy meaning her brain is shrinking. Her brain is shrinking and we don’t know why. It happened when she was I think 52, and we were driving to school and she got lost and then within six months she didn’t know who I was.
We went and got a first opinion, and to this point you go get a first opinion and the doctor says, “We don’t know what’s happening.” You go get a second opinion, and the doctors says, “We don’t know what’s happening.” You go read everything you can about frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body and stroke, and you’re trying to figure out what’s going on.
That happened to me, and I went to college and I ended up leaving college for a few years just because of taking care of her. I went and became a reporter. When I became a reporter, I learned to ask people questions, so that I went back to school and I was a very, very serious chemistry, pre-med student and I was planning on going to medical school.
I met these folks who were starting this publishing company at the time, and it’s a long story, but I started going to medical conferences for a company in New York and I would act as a private reporter. I ended up going to the Neurology Conference. I went and talked to them.
Because you were interested.
Because I was interested. I went and I talked to the fellow who studies frontotemporal dementia, and I asked him question after question, and told him about, I didn’t use my mom’s name, but I said, “If it was this, would it be that?” He didn’t know who I was, but I was knowledgeable on the subject, and like a reporter, I just kept pushing. Well, I learned she didn’t have that. I went through all of them, and over time, this isn’t a perfect story because she had Alzheimer’s and there was no answer, but she didn’t have those other things. Of course, if you didn’t know what your mother has and she’s still alive and maybe you’re going to get it and all those kinds of things, it’s a huge comfort in knowing what she has, but I didn’t get it from the first or the second conversation.
I didn’t get it because I read a report. I couldn’t. I tried for years. I think that says everything about what we’re trying to do. If your mother got sick or if you got sick, you would not be satisfied with what you could read. You would go find the best teacher and the best teacher and the best teacher and you’d keep having an interactive experience, and you would learn a lot. You would know quite a lot about the subject if you could, in that way. I think that’s the future of learning. I think that you’ll find exactly the material that you need. Some of it will be presented digitally, that’s true, through a test that knows what you want to learn, but it’ll also be about finding the best teacher.
This brings you to the other side of GLG, which is so important, which is people love to teach. If you think about your career, you’re going to spend time learning and you’re going to spend time learning and teaching, and you’re going to spend time teaching in some continuum. People learn through teaching. They stay engaged in the workforce through teaching. They may call it consulting, they may call it joining boards, they may call it a lot of things, but just straight-up sharing your expertise teaches you a lot, too. That matters because if you think about the future of learning, you’re not going to be constrained to the people that are just readily available to you in your local community. Kind of like an Etsy. You’ll be able to find the people around the world that love to teach that thing.
I want to finish on two different things. Being in New York, you guys are in New York, essentially.
We are, yeah.
I want to get to that, yeah, but when you’re talking about finding whatever you want whenever you want, this highly customized world, which again, is a digital mentality of doing this, how does then our learning change? How we teach kids, how we teach. Should every kid have a special teacher, which seems impossible?
I haven’t really gotten to kids yet. I’m more interested in what happens through your life. I wish I had a perspective on kids because I have them and I have no answers there yet. Although I think the more adaptive the better, of course.
I always go into the classroom, I’m like, “Why are they sitting here? They’re not learning.” I constantly think the way we teach is just so wrong given how much technology we have the ability to match people, the ability to figure out people’s actual skills.
What they love and why they love it.
Getting back to my example, the key of that two years ahead, two years behind thing is that is why so many kids decide they’re not good at math: It’s because they so clearly feel ahead or behind, bored or confused. I don’t know if that means everyone has a personal teacher, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Different two personal teachers. It can’t be one, right? It’s not like we have Socrates teaching Alexander the Great or whatever.
Not everyone might be ready for Socrates. I don’t know. I don’t have a perspective on that. I’ve been so focused on what happens. I’m a little focused on what happens in college, but then after college, how do you learn throughout your life, how do you teach throughout your life? I’m quite sure the idea of a business degree will change completely.
All degrees or not all degrees?
All degrees. First of all, medicine already functions to some extent like this. There is precedent. Law school doesn’t function like this, but medicine does.
Meaning that you work in the hospital?
You work in the hospital.
You still have to go to medical school. Hands on.
You have to take two years of science, and then you really are in clerkships and internships and residency. There’s this great expression, by the way — “See one, do one, teach one” — in medical school where you watch an appendectomy, you do the appendectomy and then you teach the appendectomy and then you know the appendectomy. That seems like a model. You’re doing this very personally. Someone’s right over your shoulder making sure over and over again that this is something you actually know.
I think to your point about digital impact, I think that that kind of learning is just much more possible than you think. Just to give you a sense of skill, we’ve paid our teachers we like to say about $1 billion at this point, so we’re not officially in the gig economy per se, just because we’re focused on higher-level professionals.
They called you Uber for Harvard, right?
Well, if it’s the Uber meets Harvard, there are pieces of both, and I suppose that we are somewhat of the gig economy. We’re providing gigs for people to teach for sure, but at a relatively high price point, a relatively high skill. It’s professionals.
Last thing, I want to finish and I want to talk about the idea of what people want to learn, because it changes over time. Now you said different things are really popular, and obviously today people would be interested in school security. Is that how it goes? Do you see a trend in learning?
The trends we see, we see topical trends, like digital health, for example, is the fastest-rising category.
Why? Tell me about that.
Just so much opportunity. I use digital health specifically against hospital IT. Everything was health care IT. That was the electronic medical records, etc. Now, running GLG is a little bit like running a very large virtual university. You’re always seeing people.
Or interested in.
Yeah, what they’re interested in. The consumer side of health and the digitization of that has been the fastest-rising subject. There are others like that. Of course North Korea crops up if North Korea happens or something like that, but the big subjects are China and the rest of the world or digital health. You see those kinds of things.
What do people want to know about China?
So many businesses try to figure out how to work in China, and so many Chinese businesses are trying to work in the rest of the world. Those two things lead to lots and lots of learning.
Lots of questions.
That’s true in every country, but China’s very big and the rest of the world is big, and so there’s a lot of overlap.
Then other topics that seem to be popping up? It’s just topical, topical, topical?
Those are just themes. If you look at on a weekly basis, of course you see, over the last six months in particular, you see cryptocurrency and it’s real applications, security and cryptocurrency, regulation of cryptocurrency. You’ll see that crop up. Maybe that is a 10-year theme.
Maybe. You don’t have that many experts, actually.
That’s right, but we do have experts in the things that cryptocurrency touches. If you’re interested in gambling in cryptocurrency, there are people that know gambling. If you’re interested in banks and cryptocurrency, people know banks. The Internet of Things is usually the third biggest.
That’s big tech companies trying to understand how refrigerators work, for example.
How refrigerators work?
It’s an example, but the idea is that you’re going to put technology in real things, in watches, in refrigerators, in cars, then much of the people developing those technologies don’t know watches and refrigerators and cars. They just know the technology.
They want to learn about that.
They want to learn about it.
Finally, finishing up, I was going to talk about New York, but I don’t know, do you consider yourself a tech company or what? How do you look at yourself?
We very much started as a technology idea, and then we put services on top. I just go back to Uber meets Harvard. There’s a people side and there’s a technology side.
Uber isn’t a technology company. It uses technology.
It uses technology. It’s a people business that uses technology. I suppose Yelp is in the same category in some ways. We are some blend.
Now tell me what are the strangest things people have wanted to learn.
Expanding a biscuit business into Malaysia, for example.
I wouldn’t even begin to know where to find that expert.
Neither would I. If you look through it, it’s a very long tale. It’s not long in that it gets a consumer, and there’s no, “Is Bieber getting married?” That’s not the kind of thing we look at.
Yes, I’m an expert on Bieber and Selena Gomez.
I will sign you up and you can do that project.
I don’t know who would want that information.
There’s an answer out there. It’s not that long, but there’s so many things that are strange, that the average one would be strange. The things that are probably less strange are, “How do I grow as a professional?” It usually is more specific. It usually is things like, “How do I build an HR organization that can support a culture that I want to build? Can I talk to people like Patty McCord in doing that? Who do I talk to?”
I was just going to say Patty McCord, call her.
Would be amazing. Who can I really learn from? It’s not just Patty because Patty has one perspective, but how do I talk to the head of HR at Procter & Gamble too because that’s less fancy, but probably has really strong perspective and years of understanding how those kinds of company ...
Then you call the head of Procter & Gamble HR and they say?
Not the current, you’d call the former.
Because the current would be like, “I don’t want to help you.”
No, the current may very well want to teach if you find the right student. If you find an amazing startup that’s doing something that they’re interested in, he may very well want to do the project, or he or she.
Last question: As we enter the future, how do you imagine we will learn? This is a highly customizable way we’re learning. I think you’re getting a chip in your ear, and that’s going to be like that, like “The Matrix.”
The physical property?
Yeah. Just you’ll have a chip. I want to play the piano and there will be no learning.
If the chip gets all the way in your brain, I guess it’ll figure out how to play the piano for you. In the intermediate period, I think you’ll be able to say, “What do I need to really know about learning the piano?” and the very best knowledge on that for you. It’ll watch the way you play the piano and say, “Oh, I’ve got to change the course.”
“Oh, I’ve got to keep changing the course and keep being adaptive.” Maybe it means I’ll put you in touch with a different teacher because you’re not ready for this little piece. This person’s really good — to use the piano analogy — this person’s really good at playing the piano. This person’s really good with your fingers. This person’s much better with reading music. This person’s much better with this. You’ll just have a constant stream of the best expertise from all those people.
I think my chip is better, Alexander.
The chip just goes straight in?
You just play?
Martial arts or anything. Expert.
Then we would just be learning, and I agree, that would be a different space.
Exactly. Anyway, I appreciate it. This is a really interesting talk. Thank you for coming on the show.
Thanks very much for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.