“We, as a country, could become even more of a technology giant in Europe”–CEO Q&A: Brendan Kavanagh, CEO, Olive Group

CEO Q&A | Wed 30 Oct | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Brendan Kavanagh, CEO, Olive Group.

In this week’s CEO Q&A, Brendan Kavanagh, CEO, Olive Group, tells Business and Finance about upskilling staff, e-learning, and Ireland’s potential as a tech giant.

Q. What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

As CEO of Olive Group, my main focus is staying ahead of the curve in terms of what’s going on in our industry and supporting the team in transforming businesses and lives. In order to provide customers with high quality digital training and education programmes, we need to know what the latest cutting-edge technology solutions are and how we can implement them in our training platforms. E-learning moves so quickly, so it is essential for us to know what’s next. On a daily basis, I read up as much as I can on the latest innovations, connect with and learn from industry experts, and really keep my ear to the ground on everything that’s happening in the sector.  

Q. What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

Olive Group work across a variety of industries–from construction, hospitality and retail, to fitness, manufacturing and healthcare–and we deliver value to our customers by helping to reduce staff training costs by over 85%. My biggest challenge is ensuring that this message is clearly communicated across all the sectors we operate in so that we are not financially reliant on any given one. We have been very successful in doing this, so it’s something we have to maintain. 

Another challenge arises from the rapid growth we have experienced over the past few years. As we grow, we have to continue spreading awareness about the brand and it becomes even more important to make sure that people know about the services we offer, as well as the impact we can have on their organisation and teams. 

Q. How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

My team motivates me. We have an open door policy in Olive Group, which is hugely beneficial to the team and our business as a whole–no one is afraid to speak up, or make suggestions on how we can do things better. We often have scrums and workshops, which are a brilliant opportunity for people to share their knowledge, collaborate on all areas of the business and solve problems collectively. 

We also give our employees a lot of autonomy, so while they have a large amount of responsibility, they equally have great freedom in their work. This has proven to be hugely motivational for our team members and it shows how much we trust in them. It also gives them the chance to thrive and be leaders in their respective fields. For example, our graphic and technology designers are always working on the latest Extended Reality (XR) technologies, which means they are at the forefront of revolutionising the education landscape.

On a larger scale, we offer an exchange programme between our various offices across the globe. This initiative allows our employees to share experiences and gain insights into other markets. It’s also useful for generating camaraderie across the entire Olive Group and ensuring our mission is being fulfilled on a global scale. 

Q. What are the challenges facing the industry?

One uncertainty, which I’m sure is on the minds of many CEOs in the current economy, is the outcome and aftermath of Brexit. I think that many organisations are approaching their plans, particularly in relation to staffing and resources, with a certain amount of caution as a result of this. For us, we have focused on ensuring that our service offering is spread out over a multitude of markets and establishing our presence in 12 countries. Of course, it’s inevitable that Brexit will pose challenges for a number of companies, but it’s also important to recognise the opportunity it presents for Ireland as the second-largest exporter of computer and IT services in the world. We, as a country, could become even more of a technology giant in Europe and that’s a great thing to be a part of.  

Q. What new trends are emerging in your industry?

Until quite recently, e-learning was inaccessible for many, due to the costs associated with high-end digital courses. With advances like Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence and Augmented Reality, we are now seeing huge market demand for engaging and ubiquitous courses that employers can utilise to upskill their staff. 

Furthermore, as the world becomes more regulatory, we are seeing significant growth in the area of compliance and safety training. So much so that training in these areas currently accounts for 65% of Olive Group’s content. New regulations around health and safety, cybersecurity and bespoke requirements in the individual sectors mean that this will continue to grow. We lead by example by having our training courses certified by sector specialists and delivered via online platforms, which offers organisations a manageable and scalable way to reduce their workplace risk and improve their compliance scores.

Q. How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

In the UK, businesses are definitely going through a period of uncertainty and their willingness to make contractual commitments is softening and I believe that will continue until there is a Brexit deal implemented–not just agreed. Thankfully for us, we have a global presence so we are never too reliant on one country. That makes us quite resilient when it comes to shifts in countries’ political or economic landscapes.

Q. As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

The IT talent in Ireland is phenomenal and we’re extremely lucky with the team that we have built. However, there are other sectors that are suffering from a distinct shortage of availability of skills, for example the craft and construction industries. This stems from the fact that, for a long time, we saw a shift away from apprenticeships. So we need to do more to promote this as a great way to earn a living and we have platforms that can encourage and build on the skills required for those roles. 

Q. How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

We discovered that during a recession, being in compliance training is a nice place to be. It’s not a nice-to-have; it’s a have-to-have. You’re either compliant or you’re not and that’s regardless of whether there is a recession or not. So as businesses were looking to cut costs, but at the same time be compliant with regulations, we offered them with a very attractive and cost-effective solution. Since the downturn, compliance has continued to be a major part of our service offering to businesses.

Q. How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

I believe that the measure of success is fulfilling your own potential at every possible opportunity—it’s not about anybody else. For me personally, it’s being able to look at myself in the mirror and being pleased with what I have achieved for myself, my family and others around me. I believe in our mission at Olive Group, which is to empower people who may not be able to afford learning to get on their career pathway and succeed in what they want to do. Being part of an organisation that strives to make such an impactful and life-changing difference to society is something that I am immensely proud of. 

Q. What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

I have been delighted with the growth of Olive Group over the past 12 months. We’re really proud of the value that we’re bringing to both employees and employers – whether it’s reducing risk with safety training, saving costs for businesses, or getting people on their desired career path. One of the best bits of this year has been signing a substantial contract with the government of one of the biggest economies in the world. It was a massive vote of confidence and something that we’re hugely excited about. 

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

My dad, who was also my mentor in business, told me a less polite version of the phrase: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck!” In other words, you have to be honest with yourself in relation to what’s really going on in your business or you won’t get anywhere.

Q. Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I want to maintain Olive Group’s current trajectory–to continue doing what we’re doing and achieve the same levels of growth in the coming year as we have experienced over the past 12 months. We created more than 500 courses in the last year alone and we want to accelerate this even further over the next year to empower even more people and make learning universally available. 

Q. What’s next for the company?

To date, Olive Group has trained two million people in 27 languages. We want to continue to develop new technologies and create easy-to-use platforms that educate people efficiently and at a low cost. We’re excited about the prospect of changing lives through education and this is our main focus for the future. 

Q. Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Traditionally, state bodies have allocated funds to educational institutes which are notoriously reluctant to adopt technology. But this one-size-fits-all version of education is not in line with how people want to learn nowadays. In fact, 90% of key messages are retained from e-learning versus just 20% for classroom learners. There are many companies who are looking into the area of e-learning, which is a cheaper and more engaging form of education for many. I spoke at an event recently and highlighted the need for Government to support companies who wish to access funding to upskill staff. The process of applying for funding also needs to be addressed. At the moment, it’s a laborious task, underpinned by quite a lot of paperwork. Instead, there should be an algorithm that makes it easy to apply online to see if you qualify for funding.