‘We Are Ready for this Moment’

CEO of one of the largest global edtech providers has his say. 

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Michael E. Hansen became Chief Executive Officer of Cengage Group in September of 2012 and has been a Director of Cengage Group since March 2014. During his tenure, Michael has successfully guided the company through Chapter 11 reorganization and helped pave the way for the company’s transformation from a struggling higher ed print publisher, to now, a portfolio edtech company operating in attractive markets and delivering consistent mid-single-digit revenue and profitability growth. The company is now more than 70% digital, focused on providing ‘Education for Employment’ and helping individuals improve their lives through achieving tangible education outcomes.

Michael is a battle-tested, highly experienced CEO, focused on delivering results in challenging business transformations. He has an extensive track record of developing innovative business models and disruptive strategies, while attracting and nurturing high-performing executive teams. For him, this work is deeply rewarding and reflects his own journey from humble roots in Germany’s rustbelt.

During his tenure, Cengage Group has taken significant steps to disrupt the overall education industry and break down barriers so learners have greater access and opportunity to get an education. He was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business in 2020 for his leadership in tackling the affordability crisis in higher education with the launch of Cengage Unlimited, the first-ever all-access digital subscription service for higher ed course materials.

Michael strongly believes that company culture is a primary driver of business success and works diligently to foster an environment at Cengage Group where trust, transparency and collaboration are foundational, and employees feel comfortable being their authentic selves at work. This culture has driven the company’s recognition as a Glassdoor Best Place to Work in 2019 and 2023 and Michael’s recognition as a Top CEO in 2018 and 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael’s leadership and intentional focus on transparency helped the organization navigate a heightened period of uncertainty and drive significant revenue growth for the first time since emerging from bankruptcy.

Prior to joining Cengage Group, Michael served as CEO of the Health Science Business at Reed Elsevier (now RELX) and Harcourt. Earlier in his career, Michael led the portfolio transformation at Bertelsmann and prior to that served as a partner at Boston Consulting Group.

Michael holds a Master of Law degree from the University of Bonn in Germany and a Master of Business Administration from Columbia University in New York. He is based out of New York City. 

You’re CEO of one of the largest global edtech providers, and you’ve shared about your college-aged sons on LinkedIn. Where do you get your inspiration for improving education with technology – what fires you up? 

My inspiration and ‘reality check’ for improving education comes from conversations with my sons. From a young age, they have provided me with valuable insights and perspectives that have shaped my work at Cengage Group. Our dinner table discussions cover a wide range of topics, including how their college experiences can translate into future job opportunities, their use of competitor products, and even insights into my own role as CEO. I learn just as much from them as they learn from me. This constant exchange of ideas and feedback fuels my passion for leveraging technology to enhance education. 

What truly fires me up about improving education with technology is the power it has to change lives. I firmly believe that education is the key to solving the skills gap crisis we face in America and across the globe. By addressing this gap, we can provide more people with a pathway to the middle class, ultimately closing the wealth gap in society.  

‘What truly fires me up about improving education with technology is the power it has to change lives. I firmly believe that education is the key to solving the skills gap crisis we face in America and across the globe.’

At Cengage Group, our mission is to help every learner achieve their desired outcome, whether it’s mastering a new skill, securing a new job, or entering a completely different professional industry. By viewing education as a fluid and multi-directional tool that supports individuals’ dreams at every step of their journey, we can improve quality of life and make significant contributions to our society. 

“AI” is a generality, really – how do you provide definition in this area, and what should be technology’s role in education?  

Artificial intelligence is not a new technology. AI has powered parts of the workforce and education system for more than a decade, and, for the most part, we’ve been able to harness the incredible power of machine intelligence to evolve and improve businesses and education.  

What IS new is Generative AI (GenAI), which focuses more specifically on generating new content and data, whereas historically AI has been focused on recognizing or classifying existing information.  

At Cengage Group, we are focused on exploring the promise and potential of GenAI to personalize education. The ability for every student, regardless of ability or financial status, to have a personalized tutor that is tailored to their unique education needs and circumstances. As with all technologies, there is a path to get to that destination, and that promise is still yet to be realized, but we strongly feel that coupling the promise of this technology with our industry-leading content will have a significant impact. In addition, we are using AI to simplify our internal processes with the goal of increasing efficiency, creativity and ultimately passing along cost-savings to customers.  

Accenture just shifted focus to continued learning programs (vs broad upskilling) – perhaps signaling a massive shift in the concept of upskilling. How would you characterize it, and what are your thoughts in this area?  

Accenture’s shift to continued learning programs signals a significant change in the concept of upskilling. It demonstrates that employers are recognizing the strategic imperative of continuous education for their success. Embedding the concept of continuous, proactive learning into both companies and client services is a tremendous win for the workforce. 

Accenture’s move to bring the learning capability in-house is interesting, but it may not be feasible for all companies, especially small and mid-size ones. Many companies will rely on partnerships with edtech providers to meet the growing need for upskilling and continuous learning. 

How could the edtech market be impacted, what does this mean for “closing skills gaps,” and so on? Why are edtech companies well positioned for this moment in business time re: their ability to quickly build and scale learning content for businesses and make it an always on approach?  

The impact on the edtech market is significant. Edtech companies are well-positioned to address the skills gap and offer scalable learning content for businesses. With decades of experience in evolving course requirements, developing engaging content, and personalizing learning paths, edtech providers are the best option for employers to anticipate and close skills gaps, foster greater career mobility, improve employee retention, and achieve a substantial return on investment.  

‘With decades of experience in evolving course requirements, developing engaging content, and personalizing learning paths, edtech providers are the best option for employers to anticipate and close skills gaps, foster greater career mobility, improve employee retention, and achieve a substantial return on investment.’  

We are ready for this moment in the workforce because we understand how to scale learning effectively and have an existing connection with the students we serve, who eventually become employees. This enables us to easily engage learners at any point in their journey when they want to acquire new skills or transition to new roles. 

What does this type of acquisition mean for the edtech market and upskilling; and how might we see new edtech providers enter the workforce market?  

Accenture’s acquisition of Udacity does not imply a flurry of new edtech providers will enter the market. In fact, I believe we will see quite the opposite. The workforce education space is reaching a tipping point where consolidation is becoming inevitable. 

At Cengage Group, we recognized this shift to skills education over a decade ago when we acquired ed2go, which now forms the foundation of our Cengage Work business (approaching 10% of our overall company revenue). We saw an opportunity to build workforce education models that ensure lifetime employability, close skills and labor gaps for employers, and establish talent pipelines to sustain our business ecosystem.  

There is not a one-size-fits-all way this will happen. Accenture’s acquisition of Udacity is one path that offers strong merit, but we will also see edtech providers with synergies increasingly consolidate to better provide scale and opportunity. 

What areas of upskilling are most relevant for businesses now (and edtech providers to consider) — and how businesses are approaching AI training? 

The most relevant areas for upskilling in businesses today align with the strongest gaps in the labor market. These areas include healthcare, technology fields like cybersecurity and AI, and advanced manufacturing. Edtech providers must consider these areas and collaborate with businesses to develop effective training programs that address the specific skill needs of the workforce. 

Why is a focus on “employability” versus “upskilling” going to be critical for edtech providers to grow in the workforce learning space?  

Focusing on ’employability’ rather than just ‘upskilling’ is crucial for edtech providers to thrive in the workforce learning space. While upskilling helps individuals acquire specific skills for their current roles, employability emphasizes gaining a broad set of competencies to foster career growth and remain relevant throughout one’s working life. With the rising generation likely to have multiple jobs in their lifetime, continuous learning must enable mobility and agility. While no company can guarantee lifetime employment, they should strive to offer ‘lifetime employability’ to empower individuals for the ever-changing job market. 

‘While no company can guarantee lifetime employment, they should strive to offer ‘lifetime employability’ to empower individuals for the ever-changing job market.’

As you continue leading your company through this exact type of expansion (edtech –> workplace), you have talked publicly at events like ASU+GSV, US Chamber of Commerce, etc. about the importance of this exact shift. As you lead a company that continues serving higher ed learners and now has built a workforce learning portfolio that spans upskilling in cyber, healthcare, trades and more—what are your thoughts about this, and the future of learning?  

The future of learning and business in America depends on how we build connectivity between our education system and labor market. We must move to a point where we – educators, employers and education providers – are all held accountable for the outcomes of every learner because they eventually become part of our workforce. We have seen tremendous progress over the last year through policy efforts, employer-led workforce learning programs and shifts in higher ed paths that, for example, give students the potential to earn credentials and certifications as they work toward a degree. We must continue evolving and finding ways to tie education to employment. 

That said, we are not going to experience a sea change overnight.  

We must recognize that for a large chunk of the population, a college education is still a powerful investment that provides skills they can use in the workforce and society more broadly. This model for education will continue to grow, but what needs to improve is the path offered to the 62% of individuals who don’t attend college or are unable to finish their degree program. This is an area of focus at Cengage Group – offering all learners an opportunity to find the education path that leads to success.  

‘The future of learning and business in America depends on how we build connectivity between our education system and labor market.’

Anything more you care to add or emphasize about technology’s role in learning, about AI and the future of education, or about what trends or values we should hold close? What is your take on the 6 month and 1-2 year outlook?  

When it comes to technology’s role in learning, AI, in particular, holds great promise for the future of education. However, we must remember that change won’t happen overnight. The education industry has always been historically slow to change and that will continue to be the case. I do believe when it comes to AI we will start to see the hype give way to more of a reality, and with that there will be some interesting experiments and pilots emerging, as well as sobering developments. Achieving the potential of GenAI will require collaboration from industry stakeholders, and a thoughtful approach that is focused on improving the learning experience.  

Victor Rivero is Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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