Time for a mindshift

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Nigel Ward wants people to focus on what computers can do rather then the machines themselves. He explains why to Chris Abbott

or Nigel Ward, working life has always involved software - or television. Beginning in the training business, Ward quickly learnt to manage corporate training programmes using laser disk players. No mean task when the equipment in question - only a little over 10 years ago - had no hard disk. "I was fortunate enough to get into a really exciting area. I used to go and speak about software at the Television Show. Now I'm owned by a TV company."

Ward worked with companies in the software and television industries, starting with a marketing job at Rank. They were bought by Pearson - the first of a series of takeovers in this self-confessed entrepreneur's career. Next he joined Chrysalis. After developing his software skills, Ward was headhunted by Yorkshire International Thomson Multimedia (YITM), which was itself bought by Granada.

He thinks he knows why his career has followed this progression. "A specialism of mine is re-engineering businesses. I have an ability to read businesses and sort them out."

Fourteen years of working with innovative software has produced some interesting developments too. "What we did with laser disk training was really integrated learning systems under another name - we wanted to record every page and give feedback. And yet now, people who champion integrated learning systems promote it as the only game in town."

Working for YITM when CD-Roms took off, he knew that Yorkshire TV wanted to look at interactivity. Then Granada bought YorkshireTyne Tees, and, later, the remaining half of YITM. Along the way, Ward and YITM had picked up a string of smaller companies, including Brilliant, Sensor and SEMERC, the special needs company.

Granada Learning now has three sections: software, publishing and SEMERC. The software operation is big in British terms, with 35 programmers and the same number working freelance. "And wherever you are in Granada Learning, you are only two people away from me," Ward says.

Running a large company spread across several sites means an average week might encompass Leeds, Oldham, Newcastle and Manchester, not to mention weekends in London with the family - up to 50,000 car miles a year and an awful lot of train tickets. The move to only two sites will help, and one advantage of working for a television company is that very fast data links are available.

His staff are organised in project cells, each with programmers and graphic artists responsible for particular projects. "We think quite hard about how we put people together. I've only been in this part of the education market for two years, but I listen."

Granada Learning employs 65 staff and is supported by the same number. It may seem a long way from some of the smaller British software developers. But Ward, the managing director, is looking over his shoulder at the large hardware companies who he believes are able to use their contacts to keep one step ahead. (Granada has just signed a deal with the computer giant Dell.) "It's a market dynamic that I have to deal with. It does annoy me when only a few companies are privy to information that we all need."

He has plans for Granada Learning, but is proud of what has been achieved already. "I'd like other strings to our bow. We've got some wonderful utilities and SEMERC is now a publishing company. Before it was mostly a distributor. It would be nice to expand into non-software products for special needs, maybe print-based products. We could bring our quality approach to that."

ard is unsure about the potential of the National Grid for Learning, for his company or for education. "It's early days yet, but it will change the market, and not just the delivery mechanism but how we use software. For the moment, though, it only affects what we think, not what we do."

However, he disagrees strongly with the statement in the 1997 McKinsey Report into the future of technology in Britain's schools that more good curriculum software is needed. "The market's very well served here - you know that if you travel to the States like I do."

Granada Learning's four education consultants ran more than 300 free training sessions last year, an investment for the company of Pounds 250,000. It is hardly surprising that Ward takes a keen interest in the preparations for the Lottery-funded ICT training for all teachers. "I always question the retention levels, and how we can make the training on-going. Some of the answers may involve the use of TV,"he says.

"I'd like to see companies like ours recognised as specialist curriculum producers. It still galls me that national schemes continue to put inappropriate software into schools - if confidence in the market is eroded, you are not investing in the future.

"For the last 15 years, we've been hardware-obsessed. Now we need to concentrate on good software and inservice training. The software industry needs a stronger voice; it can't be right that it's always the hardware companies who are the most vocal. Our cottage industry of 30 or 40 companies should have 300 to 400 players if the Grid develops as it should - that's when things get really interesting. Competition drives creativity and increases choice."

As a relative newcomer to education, Nigel Ward is learning fast and listening carefully. But he has his criticisms. "There has to be a mindshift; NCETBECTA has done some geat things, but I've only spoken to one person there in the last 12 months. They have to be the catalyst - if they don't do it well, who's going to? I don't find a lot of dialogue in education - it's all a bit strange. "

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