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EF Education First: Staying small while growing big

Patrick Kammermann, CIO at EF Education First, dives into the company's values and why they have driven every single decision in its digital journey towards ever greater personalisation for customers

Picture yourself traveling to a beautiful place that you’ve always wanted to visit, preparing to meet new people, make new friends who are undertaking the same journey, and learn a language that will unlock whole new worlds for you. It sounds like a dream come true, yet so many of us put all of these things off, no matter how much we long to do them; why? Because it sounds like too many moving parts, too much to organise, too difficult to plan out?

This is not the case with EF Education First, a business which lives and breathes creating life-changing opportunities for its customers. EF is an organisation with its foundations in uniqueness and a desire to provide people, across the world, with the best possible learning opportunities to broaden their horizons in immeasurable ways. Its business of international language schools is one of its primary services, and what EF is commonly known for; its mission is to ‘open the world through education’, create a cultural experience for customers and facilitate the building of relationships in an increasingly connected world.

Through this, lives are changed. One Spanish customer was a very nervous traveler, but described her experience with EF in Rome as ‘unforgettable’, and that EF gave her ‘the opportunity to be happy’. Powerful words for a powerful service. EF’s international language school business has language campuses in 54 destinations across the world, covering 12 languages, and over 150 study programs suited to any language proficiency level.

Students from over 100 nationalities and all ages use EF’s services, from two-week courses to, potentially an entire year. At the end of this time, they have earned new skills, new friendships, and a far greater level of confidence in their ability to travel to other countries and communicate with international peers. EF offers a comprehensive service for anyone and everyone. It owns and operates all of its own schools, even offering accommodation, and everything can be personalised – all transport, the aforementioned accommodation, and the educational courses themselves. This is something which sets EF firmly apart from its competitors.

In fact, the customisation is such that progress is guaranteed, thanks to EF having its own academic language learning system which ensures an approach to teaching and development that’s suited specifically to its students. Its core values are centred around success – they are focused on passion, innovation, attention-to-detail, an entrepreneurial spirit and the view that nothing is impossible.

“Our values are incredibly important,” explains Patrick Kammermann, CIO at EF. “When I joined EF in February 2019, I was amazed at the way you could actually feel the values around you, just walking through the hallways. We recruit and manage according to our values; we go as far as saying, ‘okay, this is a real EF person’. This is our secret weapon, and why we’re the best organisation in our space. Technology is important, but the reason we’re successful is the strong culture of values.”

It’s true that this outlook isn’t necessarily common for a business of EF’s size; it’s such a large organisation, but in terms of mindset and passion, it’s almost a collection of start-ups all working towards the same goal. “We are a global organisation with offices in 50 countries, but we’ve broken it down into smaller units where anybody can make a difference and be an entrepreneur,” continues Kammermann. “Each individual leaves footprints; everybody makes a difference. It even says in our handbook, ‘we want to stay small while growing big’.

The technology story

This focus on the importance of every individual, of passion, of entrepreneurship, it bleeds from every pore of EF as an organisation and out to the customer. Its recent drive towards improved technology has been much based around increased personalisation and creating an ever-more-bespoke service to our customers, while streamlining the back-office environment. From marketing, to sales, to creation of its academic courses and in-school activities, technology is always working away in the background.

“We are not a technology company – we are a travel and education company,” Kammermann explains. “We don’t necessarily want to be absolutely leading edge in terms of technology for the sake of it, but we do have the ambition to lead the industry in terms of our digital offering. This is a continuous evolution for us, and technology plays an important role. A couple of years ago, there was a fear at EF that we might fall behind in technology use, which is when we increased our investments in building on that side of the business and bringing in additional partners who are experts in their area.”

A major element of this shift has been building a global but cohesive technology team, with a three-year roadmap – one that aligns much more closely with the company’s core values than any previous technological ventures did. “Before Patrick Kammermann joined, EF was more of a technical organisation,” explains Livio Francescucci, Head of Engineering. “There were lots of separate groups working on separate projects, which mostly worked well, but it meant there was never a sense of collaboration, of a common strategy. The company grew, and the complexity of the system grew, and the previous model started failing because we needed interaction and integration between systems.”

Francescucci joined the company as a software architect, and saw fairly early on what needed to change. “We started streamlining our strategy and putting the right methodologies in place for those teams, creating a more organic organisation, with agile processes. What we look for in our tech team members is passion; of course, the technical skills need to be there, but passion is always critical too, and integral to what we call ‘the EF culture’.”

This team, focused on technology, is only going to grow as EF’s needs continue to evolve – especially since the business has a pretty ambitious vision of what it wants the customer experience to look like in future. “Eventually our customers should be able to pick up their phone and start composing the trip of a lifetime, and finalise it all with one tap of a button. This requires a lot of additional tools to be built around the classic experience, and this mission can be reinforced using technology.

A personalisation transformation

While EF has undertaken a shift in the way it uses technology, they prefer to think of it as a personalisation transformation which is fueled and led by technology. Technology allows continued evolution of a service, and the organisation is always striving to improve the customer experience. Ultimately, EF’s latest IT venture is all for the purpose of improving everything about the service, from the very first customer touch point to the very last – and beyond. This required EF to be highly flexible – which, fortunately, is something ingrained in its culture; it has to be that way, because the needs of the users are ever-shifting, and the very nature of technology is chameleonic.

Never before has that flexibility been challenged in such an extreme way as this year. With COVID-19 sweeping the globe and shutting down educational facilities as early as February, EF had to shift quickly. Fortunately, it’s always been a flexible business. “That’s one of our strengths,” says Kammermann. “When COVID hit us, we had to shut down face-to-face teaching and, literally over one weekend, we moved all our students online and created an online offering – called e-campuses – that very much mirrored the way we operate in a physical setting. All schedules were changed accordingly, the teachers worked remotely – the show must go on.”

Longer-term, COVID has meant that EF now has the basis of a strong model in place for those who want to start their studies online, creating even more flexibility for customers and catering to the needs of each person as an individual – as per EF’s ultimate goal. EF’s technology journey reflects this desire to be as quick-to-react and bespoke as possible, and its vision from the very start had to be not process-orientated, but impact-orientated. This means that the outcome had to be the most important element of it, no matter the journey, while what happens behind-the-scenes needed to be much more streamlined; the heavy lifting would be handed over to the cloud, mostly Amazon Web Services, with no EF-owned infrastructure involved, and full connectivity was needed to ensure staff and customers could work from anywhere, on any device, any time. EF calls this a cloud-exclusive strategy.

Putting it into practice

EF knew what it wanted – the next step was to get its ducks in a row. Its approach is to buy standard solutions and customise them as required, while developing its own software as little as possible. Fortunately, the software market is full of state-of-the-art tools, which for example allowed EF to replace its core sales system with an exciting new CRM solution, which was developed quickly and rolled out across the world in 2019. “We had our own home-grown system which was built in-house and had been used for over 10 years,” explains Anuj Kapoor, Senior Project Director.

“We had a complete team sitting in Bangalore, with some of them in Zurich, and we did everything on our own. The problem came when we felt our technology was becoming stagnant, and we realised what we had couldn’t be sustained for another 10 years. So, we did a lot of research and decided a standard CRM solution would be the best fit for us; we chose one of the bigger players in this space, and there are so many different partners which work alongside them, making it super easy for us to buy whatever add-on apps suit us in a plug-and-play way. Everyone really embraced it, and it became particularly useful once COVID-19 hit and we had to find new ways to connect with the customer.”

One add-on app EF implemented was created by Ortoo, and it was a great example of finding the right solution on the marketplace and getting it customised to its own needs. The Q-assign app was implemented to fairly distribute leads among salespeople, which was previously challenging thanks to EF operating in 50 countries.

“Each country can have multiple sales offices,” Kapoor explains, “and every sales office sells multiple products. Plus, every product has its own team, so there’s a lot of complexity in identifying, based on where the customer is coming from, who should be the person to take the call. Then, there’s the issue of not every customer being of the same quality as the one before it, so we had to find a way of distributing equal types of customers amongst the team. Ortoo’s system is very fair, making sure everyone gets equal opportunities, and that every customer gets equal attention as quickly as possible. Our relationship with Ortoo refines the speed of what we do, and since we implemented Q-assign, we’ve had no complaints from salespeople; before, they would complain about the lack of equality. The best thing about Ortoo is that the app is multidimensional – you can always add more complexity when you need to.”

Partnerships

The world is shifting, and having all of your expertise in-house is no longer an indicator of that expertise. Now, it’s normal – and expected – for organisations to partner up with technology vendors to bring skills and wisdom to other businesses, and this became the sensible choice for EF after years of having all of its engineers in-house to maintain strong internal domain knowledge and ensure everything was aligned with the company’s cultural values.

EF had to look for partners that would mesh with their own teams, understand their needs and offer services which would integrate well with the infrastructure and processes EF already had. This led to the start of two new key relationships, with Britenet and EPAM.

Britenet was instrumental in building and customising EF’s new CRM-based sales solution, with a collaborative spirit and high levels of expertise to support it. “They are a fantastic partner,” Kammermann explains. “They provide us the experts to customise and implement the CRM platform, where we struggled, internally, to have the right skills and capabilities. They provided us with a small, but qualified, team that was extremely dedicated – and still is.” More importantly, the business fits in with and supports EF’s core values, and it shows commitment and passion for ‘their’ system.

With EPAM, the tasks varied, supporting existing systems and building new components, such as a functionality allowing automatic scheduling of students into classes in a very sophisticated way based on a genetic algorithm. The company has proven extremely reliable, efficient, and experienced in dealing with complex problems. “EPAM has a very broad set of skills and were able to provide an expert or a resource for every problem, and they easily became part of the EF ecosystem,” Kammermann continues. “They took over responsibility from us in a very structured and quite sophisticated way, helping and pushing us where we had weaknesses. EPAM was instrumental in bringing in structures and understanding our issues.”

The team

”I have almost never seen a problem that couldn’t be solved with the right person” – these are the words of EF’s founder, Bertil Hult, and they continue to resonate throughout the business. While technology partners have proven vital to EF’s journey, its true success starts from within. The in-house team is its greatest asset, and its engineering background ensures that the organisation leads its market in terms of both building and employing the correct technology solutions. The relationships with partners are very much based in EF already having a deep knowledge of what it has and what it wants, meaning it maintains self-reliance no matter what.

As previously mentioned, a major element of this is choosing the right people for the team, with the ‘EF attitude’ – namely, passion and a sense of professional autonomy and responsibility. “There’s no such thing as ‘it’s not my job’, here,” says Kammermann. “I feel quite strongly about this; we all have our primary responsibilities, of course, but if there’s something that needs to be done, I don’t want to hear the excuse of ‘it’s not my job’. We all do what needs to be done, and that lies in our mindset. We expect people to take responsibility for what they do, and in return, we make sure they know that it’s okay to make mistakes. I can’t repeat that often enough – even in the tech space, making mistakes is okay. It’s part of an entrepreneurial culture.

“Ultimately, we want to foster a fun environment for our team. Connect with peers and customers, have music going in the tech office, eat chocolate with your colleagues – we need to find a bit of balance. Fun is an important component.”

What’s next?

In spite of all the challenges 2020 has brought, EF has no plans to slow down – in fact, it has some very ambitious plans in place. As Kammermann says, nothing is impossible, and the way EF has successfully dealt with the current pandemic is proof of that. “The personalisation continues, and we will be strengthening the team and our partnerships to make sure that happens,” he explains. “We’ll continue to invest very much in digital marketing and digital advertising platforms, both SEO and PPC, in our analytics platforms, and building out our virtual sales offices, making sure customers can interact with us through any channel at their convenience. We want to be there for our customers no matter what; if you want to use your phone, you can do that; if you want a video conversation, that’s fine too; you can use WhatsApp, or WeChat, or talk to our chatbot – building those channels is an important element of what we have planned.

“Plus, from the academic perspective, we will be investing heavily in offering the best possible learning experience in our schools – both physical and online classes – and we’re working on an app that provides students with highly personalised advice, based on their progress and past behaviours. Perfecting personalisation is our ultimate goal from marketing to sales, through to every element of our customers’ education journeys.”

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