Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Future of the Business of Learning

As part of preparing for the July 23 free online session on the Future of the Business of Learning, I've had a bunch of conversations with CLOs/VP Learning, CEOs of Training Companies, Marketing and Sales Consultants to Training Companies, Industry Analysts, Software and Services Vendors.

I am really looking forward to July 23 when we come together to discuss this. It's going to be interesting. There are some real nuggets that I'm finding that you will hear about. I would highly encourage you to join in and book the day. If nothing else, seeing the Intuit case study to think through and discuss outsourcing to your customers and rethinking return on training investment.

Register Here

There's a bit more detail on the particular sessions via the link above. I will announce the panelists in a day or two.

I felt compelled to capture a few thoughts as I've been having these conversations:

Tough Times - No One Jumping

Statistics are made real when you run into actual examples. For example, 10% unemployment doesn't always translate. Having friends or family lose their job hits home.

When you talk to someone who's training business is off 20-30%, it hits home. Imagine your paycheck getting cut 25%. Actually, if you are a smaller training company, it's worse than that. You likely are now scraping by with virtually zero paycheck. And possibly incurring debt.

At the same time, while we all know this is tough times from training, no one I've talked to is on the ledge ready to jump. Instead, I think that everyone recognizes that there's always going to be need for skill development. And overall, learning is more important than ever.

Mature or Declining Industry?

When I first introduced this topic, I probably should not have used an analogy between publishing and training. No one knows for sure what the total spend on training (using formal learning methods) will be in the future. Will it overall go up a lot? Down a lot? Stay relatively the same? Training is definitely in much better position than publishers who relied on advertising dollars.

I personally believe that the overall market for training using formal learning models is going to be on a long, slow downward trend. We are currently experiencing a big drop (similar to the drop in 2001). Training never quite recovered from the 2001 drop. And likely after this drop, we won't quite recover again.

My guess is that even the most optimistic person sees a relatively modest growth percentage and pessimists probably line up with me.

But what I find is that anytime I say that Training (using Formal Learning Models) might be transitioning into a relatively flat or declining industry – people hear - "Training is Dead." (see Long Live? for an example).

So, please help:

How can I effectively explain that training might be a mature or declining industry and still keep folks listening?

One thing I have tried to do is use an analogy. On a phone call the other day, I used the unfortunately analogy of the railroads. At one point railroads were in hyper growth mode, then they matured and consolidated. Then they were supplanted by cars, trucking and airlines as other forms of transportation. I don't think that any of the railroads managed to really transition themselves into other forms of transportation. It's a classic example of the innovator's dilemma (see The Innovator's Dilemma of Learning). Of course there are still railroads.

This did not go over well. Partly it was that there was a funny moment when I realized how tough things were for the auto and airlines. But also, no one wants to see themselves as the railroads.

Differentiation and Innovation Opportunities

No matter your take on the overall training spend, there's clearly lots of differentiation and innovation opportunities. A lot of what I've been hearing is about successful differentiation in the marketplace. Training companies and internal training organizations who focus on things that matter to organizations or who have offerings that are more than content seem to be having a better time of it.

There's also some incredible innovation going on as well. The Intuit example that will be presented and the implications of it for internal and external training organizations is going to be worth the entire time investment.

Tough Questions – Tougher Answers

I hope you won't come on July 23 expecting easy answers. The core question that I asked:

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?

is definitely a tough question. ISA did a session in March looking at a very similar question and it's clear there are no easy answers.

A big part of what makes these questions tough was beautifully captured by Tom McKee, CEO of Ken Blanchard,

You can't sell what people aren't willing to buy.

Many of our internal customers are simply not ready to buy solutions that look like something more than courses and courseware. There are exceptions and definitely opportunities for innovation. But realistically, a lot of what we will be talking about is what organizations should be doing today to be in position for the future.

This is going to be fun, hope you will join the conversation.

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