To explain why he never relied on market research, Steve Jobs famously said, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” That may be true of the consumer market, where in many cases Apple has indeed defined rather than reacted to the needs of the market, but for several reasons, the K-12 education market is a very different space.
Customers in the K-12 education market are chiefly institutions (states and school districts) not people, and institutional buyers tend to be more conservative than individuals – I trust I’m not the only person who remembers the adage, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” When I survey decision makers in medium and large school districts about their procurement plans for mission-critical applications, they often emphasize that they prefer working with established companies that can scale their operations to meet the needs of a district with tens or hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and administrators.
But perhaps the biggest difference is that in many if not most cases the purchasing process in the K-12 education space is driven by clearly articulated needs expressed by institutional customers – for example, states and districts issue RFPs, states publish criteria for the adoption of textbooks, and so on – and then producers offer products and services in response to those articulated needs.
So, in all markets, both customers and producers influence the development of products and services, and Jobs may be right that in the consumer space that dynamic is weighted towards producers who define product requirements and then show customers what they want. In the K-12 education space, however, customers – that is, states and school districts – do articulate their requirements and therefore they do play an active role in shaping the development of products and services.
Therefore because customers in the K-12 education space articulate the needs of their market, and because so many of the products and services sold to customers in that space must be developed in response to needs articulated by customers, often formally in RFPs and the like, quality market research is a critically important tool providing companies in our industry with the intelligence they require to develop products and services that will meet the needs of and therefore succeed in the K-12 education market.
So, though there are indeed examples of producers showing the K-12 education market what it wants – interactive whiteboards, for example – the articulated needs of customers in that space cannot be ignored and that is why what you don’t know about your market can hurt you.