From Personality Cults to Collective Intelligence: The Democratization of Education Online
There’s a major shift occurring in the world of small business education, coaching, and training.
One group of bloggers, content marketers, and educators have gone on to start self-funded software companies. Another group has moved toward building agencies and practices that deliver precise execution and hands-on support.
A third group is saying, “It’s just not working anymore.”
Those that say “it’s not working” are largely those who have relied on personality-driven brands and the development of the online course market. This market developed out of a desire for education to be accessible to the masses. Unfortunately, what was envisioned and sold as a democratization of business education has become anything but. The premium personality brands peddle their wares with the help of mobs of fawning affiliates while aspiring personalities aim to get a small piece of the pie.
This third group has employed the “gatekeeper model” — which thrives by sequestering “the good stuff” behind a paywall. The reason they’re experiencing diminishing returns is simple…
The rest of the market has already moved away from gatekeepers and towards the Access Economy.
We have access to people’s spare rooms when we’re on vacation. We have access to restaurant reservations at the touch of a button. We have access to a taxis in our pockets.
We have access to flexible labor that we can contract to do just about anything. We have access to time-saving technology that allows us to do things we only dreamed about 5 years ago. We have access to amazing amounts of data that we can use to learn more about our customers than we thought possible.
And, we have access to unprecedented amounts of information.
In the Greek and Roman Empires, access to information was limited to the town square and local gossip. In the 1400s, the printing press revolutionized people’s ability to access ideas and information — but only for the few who were literate and rich enough to afford books. In the early 1900s, radio and then television brought news, entertainment, and information to the masses.
Of course, the 1990s brought the internet and completely changed the game. With access to IMDB, Genius, Quora, and, of course, Google, you can find the most minute piece of information quickly — and cheat at your local pub trivia night. Even high-value education — Ivy League schools and specialized technology programs — have entered the Access Economy.
The democratization of education is here — and it’s a key part of the Access Economy.
Yet, when it comes to our businesses, we’re still relying on gatekeepers.
The gatekeeper model starts with developing a popular personality brand (and, often, cults of personality), moves on to creating DIY online learning courses, and finally sells them to us for thousands of dollars. Information is delivered in videos, articles, or audios and the “learning” is done in worksheets or small homework assignments with no collaboration or oversight from an instructor or learning community.
This is less education and more information regurgitation.
The gatekeeper model offers the bare minimum in terms of access for the most amount of money. True access to learning — and not mere information — includes access to a dynamic, collaborative learning environment full of people who are invested in helping themselves while they help you. That’s what is so valuable about traditional learning environments like universities.
This is where the small business gatekeeper model fails so miserably. It’s what has let you down time and time again.
So while some will worry this opportunity is crumbling…
I believe we’re seeing a much needed rebalancing of what people value and how they invest in what’s useful that happens to be in line with the direction of every other market in today’s consumer economy.
I first felt this rebalancing in early 2016. My team and I were working to create a more immersive experience for a group coaching program we had sold for the last 4 years while at the same time trying to automate it for those who couldn’t invest at a higher level. It did not go well.
First, my heart wasn’t in it. Second, we divided our focus. Third, we didn’t clearly define the value of either option.
It ended up being our best sales campaign to date… but it was also a flop.
That’s when I really started to rethink things. I have been passionate about collaborative learning and coaching since the beginning. Yet, I had started to abandon that approach in favor of what seemed like an easier sell and a more profitable offer.
Not a smart move.
I was at risk of missing a much bigger opportunity.
The gatekeeper model has missed the big opportunity — and left us in the cold.
Look inside the inboxes of most small business owners and you’ll find a myriad of emails all pitching some $2000 course about Facebook ads, project management, social media, selling on webinars, or writing copy. Many of these classes are very good. Some are exceptional. Others are not.
There are many savvy, successful, experienced small business gatekeepers. It’s not that the courses that are priced at a thousand dollars or more aren’t “worth it.”
I’ve bought them, I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve more than gotten my money’s worth.
However, no $2000 course has made growing my business much easier. A course can even out our journeys, level our learning curves a bit, or answer a particular question. What a course can’t do for us is support us in the daily ups and downs that running and growing a small business entails. It can’t help us evaluate ideas, get feedback on something we’ve created, or make a personalized recommendation. It can’t offer truth-telling, constructive encouragement, or even cheerleading.
An expensive course certainly can’t give us that on-demand access that we’ve come to expect from AirBnB, Lyft, and OpenTable.
Ask any successful small business owner (I’ve talked to hundreds over the years) and they’ll tell you that long-term, sustainable success comes not from nailing a particular formula or following a particular set of instructions but simply having the fortitude to show up every day with the desire to make things more efficient, reach more people, and take action on their strategy.
In other words, the key to business success is access, not learning. Learning happens, yes. But it’s not the truly valuable deliverable, it’s a side effect. We need access to encouragement, honest conversations, real feedback, and — we need access to people who are on a similar journey to ours.
This kind of access allows us to synthesize, integrate, systematize, optimize, and perfect what we do already know. No course — even the best — is made to do that.
The gatekeeper model got the opportunity wrong. The big opportunity isn’t in selling information. The opportunity is to create, nurture, and sell an environment where real growth can happen. Of course, that’s a much bigger challenge than packaging what you know into an online course. It requires a bigger investment and an intentional approach to culture development.
Imagine a world where access to good information, constructive encouragement, and honest conversations about your business were as accessible as an Uber ride.
If you had a question about how the Facebook algorithm might affect your social media strategy, you’d know exactly where you go for help. If you had a cash flow challenge, you’d know exactly who to talk to for some creative fundraising ideas. If you had a difficult conversation you needed to have with a team member, you’d know exactly the people to lean on for support.
The answers to your questions would always be personalized — instead of the anonymity of a Google search. The creative ideas would always be contextualized — instead of the one-size-fits-all approach of a blog post. The support would be from people who care about you — instead of the faceless detachment of an Instagram meme.
In this world, action is prioritized over more learning.
You do more because you’re not constantly experiencing FOMO at what you should be learning to keep up with everyone else in the personality cult. You ask questions that help you move on to the next task or clarify your action plan instead of learning things that don’t matter for your strategy.
In this world, you call the shots — and ask the questions.
The gatekeeper model relies on control to maintain its position in the market. Those that use it need to be able to influence the questions you ask and the problems you consider worth solving.
Your strategy might not depend on learning how to sell from webinars, build your list from Facebook ads, or sell high-ticket consulting proposals but they will insist it does. They’re not necessarily trying to manipulate you — they’re just very good at casting their nets for prospective customers. When you have access, you have a much bigger chance of staying on track, maintaining your focus, and sticking with your strategy.
Your questions are your own, not a gatekeeper’s.
In this world, you cover all the bases.
Gatekeepers are human, too. They don’t have all the answers and they can’t help with every problem. Sure, they’ll send you to another gatekeeper when they can’t answer your question… but then you’re back at square one.
When you have access to a network of people who have experienced scads of business challenges and successes, as well as have talents and skill sets in a variety of areas, you don’t have to worry about going elsewhere.
You can rely on the distributed expertise of the network instead of the siloed expertise of the gatekeeper.
In this world, you never worry about obsolescence.
New information is always emerging. New techniques, tactics, and strategies make their way to the mainstream. Technology changes fast and the market changes faster. With gatekeepers, you have to worry that what they’re peddling could become obsolete at any moment.
With access, the conversation goes with the flow of information, technology, and the market. When a new idea emerges, the network will evaluate it.
This is the world of collective intelligence.
We believe in a world where you can prioritize action over learning, call your own shots, ask your own questions, cover all the bases, and stay up-to-date. We believe the reason so many in the small business space are worried “it’s not working anymore” is because the gatekeeper model has finally given way to the deep desire to tap into collective intelligence and finally realize the promise of democratized education.
What’s more: we believe building a system for collective intelligence in the small business space is more than possible and that access to it should be a part of every small business owner’s arsenal of tools.