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Who's in the Market for Learning: Individuals or Organizations?

The Business of Learning: What Does the Future Hold?

Tony Karrer is asking an important and provocative question for those of us in the business of learning:

While training as a publisher of courses and courseware faces an increasingly challenging market, what other things can learning businesses successfully sell to internal or external customers?

As always, Tony's post includes a good framing of issues along with a reading list. The basic premise is that internal and external training departments have been in the business of more traditional formal learning and content creation--how does the model change when content is free and readily available? And how does it change when there's an increasing reliance on informal learning over more traditional formal methods?

I have no answers but wanted to get down some of the random thoughts/questions going through my mind after a quick read through his post.

What's popping out for me here is the idea that where ever things go for the future, we're going to have to embrace some of what's disrupting other industries, such as publishing and music. We're also going to have to think about the characteristics of social media that are rapidly shaping our expectations both on and off-line. (Warning--Stream of consciousness and ill-formed thoughts ahead)

In terms of the products that get created, I think we're looking at having multiple formats of complementary materials that can be used flexibly. I think of SpanishPod, for example, where you can learn to speak Spanish through a combination of podcasts (listen online or on a mobile device), videos, printable exercises/activities, participation in a language learning community, teacher discussions and flash cards. You use what you need to support the lessons. The idea of multiple formats along with the ability to learn alone or by connecting to a community is key.

SpanishPod also illustrates another thing I think we'll be seeing for the future of learning--subscription models. The podcasts are free, but to access the other learning materials, you pay a monthly fee that frankly is pretty reasonable if you're serious about learning another language--$9 for the basic package and $29 for the premium package. What's happening here is that you aren't buying content as much as access to an ongoing community and set of services, offered at a reasonable rate. You can try the subscription out for a month and then stop if you don't like it--something you can't do when you buy more traditional learning packages.

The community aspect is big and I think we're going to be thinking a lot about what makes up a learning community and how to nurture them. It may be partially about the platforms we use, but it's also about who is in the community. I tend to think that open communities of practitioners learning together across organizations may be a more viable long-term model than "behind the firewall" solutions. I can't help but think that open source and open social networks are successful for reasons that apply to learning, although I know that privacy and proprietary issues play a role, too.

How learning content is packaged is something else we need to look at. If the social web is teaching us nothing else, it's that having a personality and a point of view sells. We're talking business here, so it isn't just about who has the most "effective" learning tool. It's about who's creating learning that people want to participate in. The rest just looks institutional and like the commodity it is. People want a sense of humor, to be entertained.

 A good example of what I'm talking about is the Plain English videos, created by Lee and Sashi LeFever of Common Craft fame. That series is fun and full of personality ("Yea! Boo!") and they were able to parley that into a business for themselves. I think that it's this kind of creativity that we'll be needing more of for the future.

I'm also wondering who the market will be. If you read Tony's post, the assumption is that we'll be selling learning to organizations--in particular, large companies.  But increasingly,  I'm thinking we'll be selling to individuals. For one thing, even though businesses say that learning is important, at the same time, they are investing less and less in their workers. A few years ago I attended a conference where the keynote speaker shared research indicating that businesses didn't invest in training their employees until they'd been there for three years. Given the average tenure on the job is shrinking, we're going to see more people who aren't there for that three year window of opportunity.

Related to this, I think we're seeing a push to more contract workers. Technically these people are not employees and most companies are not going to invest a lot in their development. That leaves learning up to individual workers themselves. 

I also think that company-specific training in procedures and processes is either being handled through OJT or with performance support systems,  which decreases the need for learning that's customized to a specific company. This too will give companies an "out" in terms of whether or not to invest in training.

If I'm right, then this really changes the business landscape for learning. Individual learners are working with different value propositions and needs than are their employers. Right now, they try to get those needs met through colleges and some self-study,  but I think there might be some opportunities here for training companies, especially along the lines of the subscription model I mentioned earlier. These learners will be more price sensitive and will want learning that is flexible, creative and fun.  I also think this is where the community aspect becomes important--the right community will build long-term loyalty, which is exactly what we're seeing when community is done well in other businesses.

I'm someone who, frankly, would prefer to see individual workers being in charge of their own learning, rather than putting that responsibility in the hands of companies. This is the essence of a knowledge economy--you own the means of production, in your head. Letting someone else decide what you should learn would be like letting someone else decide what machines you would use to produce your goods in a factory. This is one reason that companies are reluctant to invest in training--you can now take their "machinery" with you when you leave. I will admit, then, that part of me WANTS the future to be in learning sold to individuals, rather than to companies. Still, I think there's something here.

I hesitate to prognosticate--I'm sure you guys will be able to point out a lot of the flaws in my thinking here. In fact, I hope you do! This is an interesting conversation for us to be having, though, because in a knowledge economy, how people will be able to access learning is a big deal. The business opportunities are also going to shape what learning is provided, how it's provided, etc. so I'm curious to see where this takes us.


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Your second-to-last paragraph is an excellent summary of the situation. In fact, I think this goes to heart of the changing (evolving?) nature of the employee / employer relationship in a knowledge economy.

Individual workers are in charge of their own learning today, but only to the extent that they are willing and/or able to spend on learning. Most people aren't able to spend their own money to just get better at their job, and those that could afford it are likely still not willing, even though they may spend their own money to learn non-work-related things that they are interested in.

And, as you say, many companies are still unwilling to invest in "general" learning that the employee could take somewhere else. As I wrote in the post linked above: "The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves."

Both individual workers and the organizations they work for will need to change their outlook on not just their relationship, but their responsibilities to and for each other within that relationship.

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