MEET Peter Burman

27 June 2019

Linnéa Lindgren

On 5 June, Peter Burman, President Corporate Solutions at EF Education First, was appointed new Council member for the SCC, at its Annual General Meeting. The Link met with Peter, to talk about his new appointment, his love for the education industry and the challenges ahead.

Contributing with an education and technology perspective
“I’m excited to join the SCC Council for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I’m looking forward to meeting and learning from fellow Council members as well as being able to contribute with an education and technology perspective to our conversations and to our programmes. More personally, I’m looking forward to establishing a more formal connection and involvement with the Swedish business community in the UK, a country I have lived and worked in for the last 10 years,” says Peter.

Early interest for languages and cultures
Peter grew up in Västerås, Sweden, and his fondness for languages and experiencing different cultures began early. At the age of 11, he moved to Pretoria, South Africa, together with his family, where they lived for three years. “I basically left Sweden as a kid and came back as a teenager. Having lived with apartheid, learning English, and learning
Afrikaans, it really gives you a lot,” says Peter who now speaks three languages fluently: his native Swedish, Spanish and English, and some Afrikaans from the years in South Africa.

Going forward Peter decided to study business in Uppsala, but he also spent a few years as a PGA professional golfer. “I played for money for a little while, but also studied at university and it wasn’t a very good combination. So, I had to cut my hair and get a job very quickly after my golf career”. He adds: “I did learn a lot of very important lessons to add to my business studies. Sports at that level, teaches you discipline and how to focus on the process rather than just the result.”

Brought to the business by a friend
Back in 1999 Peter worked in pharma sales for Johnson & Johnson. He was very happy with his job and had never even heard of EF. “One day, one of my best friends calls me as he had had an interview with EF. He basically just said, ‘so I interviewed with this company called EF. I’m going to start tomorrow and you’re going to interview as well’. I was very upset, and felt like ‘what are you talking about?’ I don’t want to work for EF.”

Peter ended up interviewing with EF and he was straight away very attracted to the company culture, the amount of responsibility you were given as well as the opportunities to work abroad. “It was also something about the industry. I had toyed with becoming a teacher after my business studies. To make money, since I didn’t make any money on the golf, I worked as a substitute teacher and a golf teacher. I could relate to language learning and I could relate to travel from my time living abroad. It also seemed as an industry with great opportunities and a lot of things going on.” Peter adds: “So I have to admit that my friend was right.”

In 1999, Peter joined EF as a Product Sales Manager in Sweden and has been with the company ever since except for a two-year period when he lent his managerial talents to My Academy, a start-up doing home tutoring. In January 2004, Peter was appointed President of EF Corporate Solutions and before that he spent time in other divisions of EF Education First, managing Latin American markets and living both in Chile and the US.

Opening the world through education
Ever since 1965, when Bertil Hult founded EF Education First in Lund, Sweden, the company has been opening the world through education. Now, over 50 years later, EF is the world’s largest privately held international education company focusing on language, academics, and cultural experiences. Peter mentions three main factors for why he loves EF and his job: the culture, the company’s international environment and the industry in itself.

“The culture is really something that transcends through the whole business. I love our culture, we are entrepreneurial, fast moving and extremely international and I guess at this point I’m part of it, I’m a culture carrier. I love EF people. I know it sounds very corny, but I really do.” He also highlights his love for the industry: “Working in education is fun because there’s still so much left to do. It’s almost exhausting to think about all the things that can be done. I don’t think I could work in an environment that isn’t like that.”

Peter elaborates: “Education breaks down barriers. Nelson Mandela said, ‘education is the most powerful weapon to change the world,’ and it really goes in line with everything we do at EF.” He continues: “We’re a company with 16 different divisions that are pretty autonomous from one another. All our businesses are focused on education in some way. The most famous one in Sweden is the ‘travel abroad’ division but it’s only a part of the business.”

The biggest company that you have never heard of
“Somebody said that ‘we are the biggest company that you have never heard of’. It’s a weird tagline but to explain that, we do so many different things and have grown so fast”.

Peter works with thousands of companies and large organisations globally to improve their language skills. He says there are a lot of opportunities for growth and there are difficulties in capturing them fast enough. “Hiring and onboarding people fast enough is the biggest challenge. If I go back 10-15 years of EF, that’s always been the biggest difficulty. How do we find enough people and train them fast enough to capture all the opportunities? That’s still number one.”

How to feel small when you are big
He explains that living in a fast-growing environment for that long can be kind of exhausting and fun at the same time. With this challenge also comes another. “As EF has grown, keeping the company culture becomes a bit of an issue. How do you stay small when you grow big?” As such, Peter says that “how to feel small, so we stay on our toes and don’t become too comfortable” is something that is top of mind for all EF managers. In order to tackle these challenges, he tries to live by ‘hiring people who are better than yourself’. “It will never be enough to do things the same way you always have. Being entrepreneurial is key to us.”

Technologies, smart speakers and speech recognition
It is also clear that technology plays a big part in everything EF does. When speaking about what technologies EF is focusing on moving forward, Peter is a little bit secretive. He shares some examples of what EF is doing with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Smart speakers, speech recognition and scoring are features that are on top of the agenda. EF has introduced the use of smart speakers, like Amazon Echo etc, to immerse more in the language, mainly in Asia.

“There’s a really cool story about our children’s business in which we’ve been trying out smart speakers. The smart speaker can recognise certain situations. So, for example, when you’re brushing your teeth the smart speaker can create a song around that. You sing and learn the song while getting familiar with and learning the vocabulary around the activity,” says Peter.

However, he also underlines that it will never only be about the technology. “An interesting observation is that we’ve noticed that when the parent is there with the child, the learning is much stronger. It will be about other factors as well, such as the teacher and the environment.”

When it comes to speech recognition Peter mentions the great advantage of quickly being able to collect data about a person. “If you pick up that someone is from a certain country, the device can immediately recognise that. In a few sentences we can almost give you your language level, and a TOEFL level. So instead of taking a very expensive 2,5 hours test we can very quickly identify your language level and then start to tailor your education because we know the mistakes, you’re going to make before you make them.”

Higher demands and more personalised content
Students nowadays are a lot more demanding and the same goes for the companies and organisations that EF is working with. “In companies - everyone’s always very busy, and have multiple demands on their time. That means their demands are similarly high in terms of relevant and convenient learning.”

Another interesting trend is the domination of the English language. “It’s more English than other languages than when I joined. It was 90% when I joined and it represents 95% now. It’s partly because of the internet, half of the information on the internet is in English, and it’s partly because Chinese is so hard to learn. Everyone thought that we would all be learning Chinese, but the Chinese are learning English instead.”

EF’s clients are worried about innovation, digitalisation and structural changes. “This all feeds into language training as all of them require language skills, especially English. In order to innovate you need to communicate, and you need to understand what’s going on in innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley.
Inevitably, you need to understand English.”

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