Founder and CEO, Cognician
Barry Kayton has a passion and drive to experiment with channels commonly associated with learning. Unlike other tech spaces where entrepreneurs are drastically looking for the solution to solving some of society’s major pain points, there is no silver bullet or final answer to addressing the local and global educational space.
Cognician, a question-driven e-learning platform for corporate businesses looking to increase productivity, offers a different methodology in approaching how individuals learn. In today’s environment of information overload, data is often acknowledged for its relevance and interest; however, the likelihood of information being processed to result in a change of behavior is unlikely if not personalized or reflected upon. This is how Cognician works; it believes in the power of questions, which are used to begin a process of thinking (defining the problem), feeling (personalizing the problem), and subsequent doing (creating action or change) that creates a pattern of reflection and behavioral changes.
Cognician is currently focused on the corporate market; however, it is working on strategic partnerships to unlock the secondary and tertiary educational user. It will be releasing content for personal use later in the year. SABLE’s Dave Kitley met with Barry Kayton to understand Cognician’s inception, its current status and his view of the South African entrepreneurial landscape.
Dave Kitley: Can you give us your one-minute pitch describing Cognician?
Barry Kayton: Cognician creates chat-based, question-driven e-learning solutions for corporate businesses looking to increase productivity. We have a proven methodology that starts and ends with the user. Cognician aims to deliver better performance in less time and with less backsliding to comfort zones by targeting learning at a cognitive and meta-cognitive level.
We believe a lot of education and training is interesting and informative but actually makes little difference to people’s skills and behavior. Talk to any employee, and you'll find that a common experience has great excitement during and immediately after a training intervention, followed by a return to the way things were done before.
Cognician aims to put a stop to this. We aim to radically improve employees' productive behavior by targeting their thinking processes—specifically the questions they need to ask to solve various kinds of challenges at work and bring their practices in line with corporate strategy.
Dave Kitley: Can you describe your prior work experiences and the golden thread that runs through them with the idea, formation and development of Cognician?
Barry Kayton: My prior work experiences can be summed up in two words: optimized learning.
While doing postgraduate studies in the early 1990s, I came across a company called Brand Knew, which used advertising to optimize the process of developing literacy in illiterate adults. The premise of their system and material was so simple: Adult illiterates are not totally illiterate; they can recognize top brands like Coca-Cola, Toyota, Ford, BP, etc. The material would take a non-reader from these familiar brands and slowly strip away the color and design, leaving only the letters from which the phonetic alphabet could then be unpacked, dramatically speeding up the process of acquiring literacy (and doing so in a way that treated the trainee with the utmost respect and dignity).
A few years later, as manager of a photo service on cruise ships in the Mediterranean, I trained photographers to be productive within days. Once again, I saw the power of making a "can do" assumption and giving trainees the tools to accelerate and optimize their learning.
Fast-forward a few more years, and I was running a one-day seminar in creative and critical thinking at the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town. One of the MBA students came up to me at the end of the seminar and said how he had been in a five-day workshop with a creative guru, which he found interesting and informative, but he hadn't been empowered to be any more creative. Yet he had become more creative almost immediately during my seminar because I had provided creative tools he could use.
This was the spark for Cognician. We set out to take our methodology for optimizing learning and build it into a software platform.
We believe you can learn anything if you have the right tools to accelerate and optimize the learning process. Too much education and training can push content down people’s throats when it’s far more efficient and effective to draw out what people already know and use this as a bridge to help them learn what they need and really want to know to perform more effectively in their work.
Dave Kitley: How did you go about validating your idea? What were the key milestones in the process?
Barry Kayton: We started out with the aim of working with publishers to adapt popular non-fiction books for delivery through our platform. Although publishers were interested, uptake was slow. At the same time, we started meeting with corporate clients where interest was far stronger. While Cognician was still an alpha-stage product, we secured our first project from the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, followed quickly by a project for Old Mutual. Both of these were significant projects that provided the initial validation that we were offering something of value. But we felt that they provided a soft validation; they were both outlier projects, being somewhat unconventional and unusual. We then went on the hunt for a hard validation—a sale from a cold start with a blue-chip client aiming to solve a typical people development challenge. Several other significant deals ensued, which provided further validation.
But the clearest validation came from Rand Merchant Bank. RMB runs a year-long program to induct university graduates into the company. Much of this program (called the Launch Pad) is conducted face-to-face, which is disruptive, expensive and time-consuming. RMB chose Cognician because they saw that our online learning system would support the Launch Pad in its aim to make a powerful, personal connection with the user, achieve great learning results and reduce disruption and cost.
Dave Kitley: In the BYM/Xstrata series, you advise for South Africans to dream big. Can you elaborate on this and the concept of dreaming big?
Barry Kayton: I think too many young South African entrepreneurs limit their dreams due to the constraints of capital, a limited home market and the geographic distance from America, Europe and the rest of Africa. We need to envision a future free of these constraints and imagine how we can take our ideas to stratospheric success. At the same time, we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground and take the actions needed to get our businesses to the next level.
Dave Kitley: Is there a gap in the amount of Ed Tech innovation taking place in South Africa?
Barry Kayton: There are many Ed Tech initiatives in SA. If there's a gap in this sector, it's between Ed Tech entrepreneurs and providers of capital.
Dave Kitley: With your work for Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, what is it about the mindset of entrepreneurs that your tool is hoping to radically shift or change?
Barry Kayton: Allan Gray fellows are highly capable individuals. There really is no single attitude we're aiming to shift. Instead, we're working with the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation to provide multiple points of shift, some of which are completely irrelevant for some fellows while others are completely relevant. With the foundation, we developed a self-assessment instrument that allows fellows to assess themselves in terms of 20 mindsets. These 20 components of the entrepreneurial mindset include resilience, resourcefulness, risk taking, etc., and each of the mindsets is further deconstructed into six components (either attitudes or skills). For instance, the components of risk taking include ambition, attraction to challenges, courageousness, risk calculation, tolerating uncertainty and being undaunted.
Crucially, the self-assessment is not a test of actual performance, but rather a test of self-perception. The assumption is that if people do not perceive themselves to be disciplined, for example, they're probably not actually disciplined. Of course, there's a danger of people overestimating themselves, but the system is self-correcting.
Once fellows complete the self-assessment, they can see at a glance which of the mindsets they've self-assessed as areas of strength and which are areas of weakness. And they can decide on a strategy of playing to their strengths or eliminating their weaknesses. The product we developed with the foundation consists of 120 conversational guides, or cogs for short. Fellows complete the cogs that they believe will help them strengthen their entrepreneurial mindset.
Dave Kitley: What is your view on the different enablers across the start-up value chain (e.g.. incubators, mentors, financiers, experience of entrepreneurs), and which do you feel is fundamental to making a key difference?
Barry Kayton: Finance is critical. In the case of Cognician, we've often said that we left shore on a raft with the vision of building a passenger cruise liner. Our history would have been completely different if we'd been properly capitalized from the outset. On the other hand, surviving on a drip feed of capital has its benefits—we've learned to be extremely frugal.
Besides capital, which is obvious, I'd say that a single conversation with an experienced entrepreneur or mentor can radically change one's trajectory. Often it's the questions an experienced entrepreneur will ask that make all the difference. In fact, it often comes down to a single question that completely changes one's perspective. That's why Cognician uses a chat-based, question-driven approach to learning. In everything we do, we believe in asking powerful questions. We believe that thinking is a process of sequential question asking, that great thinkers are those who have learned to ask great questions, and that anyone can become a better thinker and become more successful by learning to ask powerful questions. We believe that to change people's behavior, you need to change their minds. And we believe in changing minds one question at a time.
Dave Kitley: What possible restrictions or limitations are you seeing when applying for local and/or governmental VC funds?
Barry Kayton: Through our experiences and relationships with peers, a lot of funding debates are taking place. Key pain points we are experiencing involve government funding where there are numerous hoops to hurdle; specifically, they put in place IP limitations to prevent the ability to export IP. This restriction prevents companies like Cognician from thinking globally. To achieve global relevance, we will likely have to base our business in a foreign environment to leverage geographic locations, and accepting state funding will limit this.
An additional pain point is dealing with the general bureaucracy and speed when applying for funding with both public and private VCs. Decision making is invariably slow, which can be detrimental to start-ups where initial conversations with junior dealmakers can be time-consuming and over-promising when, in fact, positive outcomes are limited.
Finally, the focus of funds appears to be on quick wins ( i.e. apps), where traction can be obtained very quickly, whereas in the Ed Tech game, traction can take slightly longer.
Dave Kitley: Based on what you know now, would you have done it differently?
Barry Kayton: Yes. We started out with decades of experience in how to develop people, with tried and tested methods for optimizing and accelerating learning, so we started out very much with a product focus. But over the past two years, we've focused our efforts on finding customers.
The process of customer development is the key; we're always trying to understand customer pain points and connecting our product directly to these pain points. For instance, two of the biggest problems in learning are knowledge retention and backsliding to comfort zones. The reason for both of these is an over reliance on information in the training process. But information doesn't change people's behavior; if it did, no one would smoke. No one would eat sugar. Cognician goes beyond information and addresses the attitudes and mindsets underpinning behavior.
Dave Kitley: Finally, what is your vision of entrepreneurship in South Africa? What needs to happen to enable this?
Barry Kayton: The greatest impediment to entrepreneurship in South Africa is the education system. At the age of 17, I wanted to start a bank at my school. It was forbidden, and I backed off. How different would things have been if the school had encouraged me and channeled my entrepreneurial efforts? How many other students are having their entrepreneurial sparks extinguished?
There are many teachers out there trying to make a difference and some great organizations, such as the South African Institute for Entrepreneurship. But we need to do more to get the entrepreneurial message through to schools.
Dave Kitley: What is your vision for Cognician?
Barry Kayton: We are continuing with business development, both locally and in the North American market. Our development roadmap also looks at how to allow people to create their own cogs using their content and our platform. From this, they can either sell cogs or allow them to be open for free use. But for now, our focus is on becoming the standard for online learning going forward.
About Barry Kayton
Kayton oversees the development of Cognician. A thoughtful, empathetic and committed entrepreneur, he began studying English and classical civilization and ultimately earned a post-graduate in advertising/marketing. His career spans efforts including implementing adult literacy training, designing learning support materials and founding Cognician.
When he’s not working, Kayton enjoys hiking in the mountains around the peninsula south of Cape Town, reading fiction and non-fiction, watching movies, and playing backgammon.
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