There’s a lot of disruption in the training industry – there’s always a lot of disruption in the training industry. However, this disruption sits along the edges and rarely penetrates to the core. The core of what training does – or, rather, is supposed to do – is improve human performance. It’s a tool, like coaching and productivity aids, that is designed to make humans more productive, happier, and healthier.
We’ve got decades of solid research on how people learn – and how they don’t. (See Efficiency in Learning, The Adult Learner, and The ABCs of How We Learn for a start.) We’ve got good strategies for reducing the gap between what we want people to know and what they actually do. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for an example.) Unfortunately, few practitioners have done much research on what does work and what doesn’t. Instead, they rely on their experience and how they were taught. The thinking goes like this: “If it worked for me to learn, it will work for other people.” Accepting that this is true for the moment, that’s not the point. The point in today’s information overload, high-speed, rapid-change environment isn’t whether it can accomplish the objective. (See The Information Diet and The Organized Mind for more on information overload.) The question is whether it’s the most effective way to improve the performance of humans.
Efficacy is measured on whether the humans are able to perform the skills or behaviors that the training is designed to enhance. This is balanced against the cost, both in terms of the individual human learner and the effort in producing the training, including its distribution. The largest shift in corporate training over the last two decades (which is a short time in learning terms) has been the shift from instructor-led classroom training to electronic-based training.
This shift is due to the substantial reduction in cost by eliminating room logistics, flights for the parties involved, and the instructor for every delivery. These costs are substantial, and because they are so large, it’s acceptable in many kinds of training to accept lower learning retention rates through electronic learning and still have greater efficacy. So even though we don’t get as far down the road to our goal of total learning, its cost reduction is so significant it has a higher efficacy.
With electronic learning in place, the primary remaining costs are the cost to develop the course and the cost for the consumers to go through it. Unfortunately, the distributed nature of the cost for people to go through the course makes this portion of the educational cost less tangible to managers and leaders who are looking at the costs of a training program. Thus, the primary constraint on costs becomes the cost to develop the course.
Build vs. Buy
This leads to the classic build vs. buy decision. When should an organization build their own content, and when should they buy existing courses developed by others to leverage economies of scale? The rather simplistic answer is that you build when the training needs to be customized to your organization. The problem is that the lines are rarely clear between the need to customize and the ability to accept mass-market training.
Certainly, when training on the processes inside the organization, it’s necessary to develop the content internally. On the opposite extreme, few learning organizations would believe that customizing the introduction to Microsoft Word course makes sense. The rub comes in when we move to the gray areas like customer relationship management (CRM) software or even advanced Microsoft Word. In the CRM example, you may want to teach the skill (adding an opportunity) with the details of the organization’s rules. For instance, you may need to discuss the specific rules for how to rate the likelihood of closing the opportunity based on your organization’s rules. In the Microsoft Word example, you may have a specific location where templates must be stored or a specific set of styles that should be used for larger documents. In these cases, the skills are infused with the particulars of the organization.
Buy and Customize
A strategy for addressing this need is to buy a baseline set of content and customize it. While this strategy sounds good in theory, in practice it can be difficult to do, as content producers are reluctant to share their source materials with corporations to allow them customization. It also requires a set of skills that many learning professionals don’t have. We have SCORM and TinCan, but there’s not one way of doing things that a learning professional can learn to understand how to customize the content. There’s always conventions of the content producer that the corporate trainer must learn ad hoc.
Ultimately, the most effective answer for organizations is to buy content and customize it, but the market isn’t ready to make this a reality for every organization. For the time being, many organizations are going to settle for buying some content and creating other content. Solutions like the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide, which offers simple ways to replace screen shots and edit the items, aren’t common, and they’re likely to not be common for a while.