With New SF Office, Cengage Looks to Rival Tech Giants

5/1/14Follow @xconomy

Cengage Learning, the billion-dollar edtech giant that started life as Thomson Learning before it was sold off in 2007, is celebrating a brand-new office in San Francisco this week.

The new facility will be a testing ground for fostering engagement and innovation in the workspace, and CEO Michael Hansen says the company expects to use employee feedback to roll out changes in its other offices as well, likely starting in Chicago and then moving to its Boston headquarters. “In many ways, San Francisco was our guinea pig,” he says. The new space was designed by Gensler, the architecture and design firm that has also worked on projects for companies like Facebook, Quest Diagnostics, and Lenovo.

Though the Boston office recently became the company’s headquarters “from a legal perspective,” Hansen thinks “the concept of headquarters is very antiquated.” Instead he prefers to view the biggest of the company’s 39 international locations as “hubs,” and the new San Francisco hub is a nod to the company’s commitment to embracing its tech future.

Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation:

Xconomy: What was the impetus for moving to the new San Francisco location?

Michael Hansen: We had a facility in Belmont, and we have been in the broader San Francisco area for many, many decades. The offices that we had were very traditional, old-style publishing offices. The move to San Francisco was really the first big milestone in turning the company into a real edtech company, which is what we’re focused on now.

The company goes back many, many decades. It was really a group of individual publishing companies, traditional book publishers focused on the education space, producing textbooks. Obviously, with advent of the Internet, that business fundamentally changed. We’re not a pure tech business; we’re building software that goes hand in hand with content.

X: Why is it so important to be in San Francisco?

MH: It’s a very simple story. A, we need to be where the customers are, and B, we need to be where the employees with the profiles we need are. San Francisco fits the bill on both fronts. It’s a major hub of education, with world-class universities, and it’s also a hotbed of technology talent. And as such, for us it was a very logical and strategically important location.

X: You mentioned that you want your offices to rival those of big tech companies like Twitter, Airbnb, Facebook, and Google. Why does that matter for an edtech company?

MH: Two reasons. That tends to be where the talent is. We’re finding quite good success hiring people from those types of companies who have a particular passion for education. There are a number of people in that world who feel passionately about moving education forward.

Reason number two, these are in many ways collaborative partners of ours. Some of the edtech companies out there we have been working with for many years. We are deliberately building our platforms as an open platform. We allow people to load in, for instance, Khan Academy videos, we allow them to load in their own materials, and we allow them to bring in partners. From that respect, it’s much easier to be co-located, rather than doing video conferencing and phone calls. We have partnerships with a large, large number of companies.

X: How does the design of the new space support engagement and collaboration?

MH: We probably spend, and appropriately spend, a lot more time figuring out our space layout relative to finding space. We found a great location, but the layout is critically important. This is different than a traditional office building. There are wide-open spaces. People don’t have assigned offices. No little cubbyholes. It’s all built around collaboration, and participation between people producing content and people working alongside them with technology. In previous incarnations, these were two separate, siloed functions. We are bringing them together.

The whole space is designed to foster that collaboration. We have significantly increased open collaborative space without desks and phones, etc. No one has a fixed PC anymore; you can walk with your phone embedded in your laptop. You have a headset you carry, and your phone walks with you. All of that is really designed to foster the collaboration we need to come up with next-generation products.

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