How well do elearning providers serve L&D? Report from the Think Tank

By John Helmer March 27, 2015

Buyers will always have gripes about their suppliers (and vice versa!). But our researches show elements of a disconnect between what L&D needs from the learning market and what vendors are most keen to supply.

Is this symptomatic of a serious structural problem within digital learning – or just the natural tensions that exist within any B2B market? As part of a wider consultation exercise on the changing face of L&D we asked the question, how well does the supplier market in bespoke and packaged elearning content really serve L&D?

… And we asked it in two ways.

Firstly, we asked a wide sample of attendees at the Learning & Technologies how satisfied they were with their technology-focused content providers.
pie chart showing that L&D values its suppliers

It seems they must be doing something right. In a sector which has become hugely competitive in the last few years, it seems that majority of buyers are happy with the products and services they are using from elearning providers. That’s not to say there’s no room for improvement however: with a large chunk of the delegates polled with no strong opinion either way, providers arguably still have some way to go to engage buyers better.

Secondly, we posed the same question to an invited group of L&D leaders in a ‘Think Tank’ facilitated discussion conducted under Chatham House rules.

Delegates were from organisations including Lloyds Banking Group, Mærsk, MOD, Pragma, Towards Maturity, Trafigura, TUI, and Vodafone.

This opened up a frank, no-holds-barred discussion that gave some clear pointers as to where things might sometimes go wrong. Here’s what they had to say.

For the time-challenged … key points from the Think Tank discussion

  • Learning is getting briefer and more chunked, but learning providers are slow to adapt to the change
  • Buyers would like to see some certification for quality – and better technical standards
  • ‘Solutioneering’ is a common problem – but vendors do it too!
  • Buyers complain of lack of imagination among suppliers
  • The entrenched split between the digital and instructor-led sides of the industry frustrates the buyers’ desire for channel-agnostic solutions
  • Buyers acknowledge that aspects of their internal culture, and poor procurement, can make life difficult for vendors

‘Instructional design is dead’

Learning is changing. Driven by shortening attention spans, growing mobile use and the pressures of ever-accelerating business cycles, it is getting shorter, more chunked – ‘My end-user wants it straight to the point,’ said one of our delegates. But some providers are proving slow to adapt to this change, with the result that this delegate finds he often has to fall back on DIY: ‘we created our own video clips, our own animations … mini modules and developed our own learning app … and I can see why the supplier community won’t be so interested, because it’s billable hours: you get more money for building a 20-minute, 30-minute e-learning module rather than a three-minute thing – at three minutes you can’t actually do any instructional design. And it must be a threat. Having once been on the vendor side, with a team of instructional designers to feed, I know that if a client had given me three minutes, I’d have said, “Gosh, there’s not much you can do with three minutes!”’

This proves a problem with legacy content too, which buyers now want to chunk up and deliver in this new context: ‘sometimes it’s designed for a different purpose, so you start to chunk it and suddenly it just falls to pieces: it’s a challenge; a whole new way of thinking’.

Buyers want better standards – or any standards

With the supplier market so fragmented, so teeming with start-ups, among whom staff churn can be high, and revenues unpredictable, it is no surprise that buyers have trouble identifying reliable, quality partners to work with. One delegate praised highly the work of the CIPD in providing accreditation to individuals in the industry, but wished that there were some way of providing more benchmarking or accreditation of supplier companies.

Even among his own roster of chosen suppliers, however, he sees a worrying lack of consistency: ‘the quality we get from them … is either incredibly mixed or incredibly poor; either way, there are always bad bits’.

ISO-style standards do not really provide much help in this regard, and neither are technical standards like SCORM particularly reliable. The same delegate reports that two of his vendors, both of whom claim to produce SCORM-compliant courseware, are independently telling him their elearning won’t run on his LMS: I don’t care whose fault it is – I just think it’s shambolic!’

The problem of solutioneering

It’s a common complaint of vendors that their clients ‘solutioneer’. This means that, rather than come to them with a problem and ask their advice on how it can best be dealt with, drawing on their expertise and wide experience, the client jumps straight to: ‘we need a two-hour elearning module’, where a blend, or something else, might actually have been more effective.

Interestingly, however, the buyers make a quite similar complaint when it comes to describing the suppliers’ tendency to over-engineer things. ‘The suppliers hold an incredible amount of expertise … and you’re really wanting their expertise and their ideas; but then what they’ll come up with is a £200,000 blend, when you just might want a few three-minute videos … and when you say well we don’t have £200,000 for a blend, you end up with an hour of “click-next” e-learning, because that seems to be the only other alternative … their fallback position’.

‘We’re not getting that grand ambition from anyone’

Other delegates complained of lack of imagination in the industry: ‘I try to go in with an incredibly open mind and an open brief to our suppliers … but we’re still not getting that grand ambition from anyone … even where we’re trying to give a blank canvas’.

Part of the challenge for suppliers is getting over an unwillingness to challenge the client – to be ‘the expert in the room’ and push back where necessary. For quite understandable reasons (unequal power distribution between buyers and vendors, need for the sale, inexperience) vendors often give client what they want rather than what the vendor knows would be better for them.

One of our delegates speaks of how he went in to run an L&D department and was shown some very bad elearning that the company had procured. Having been on the vendor side himself once, our delegate could see straight away what the problem was: ‘The supplier gave you what you asked for.’ They solutioneered, and didn’t let the supplier push back or give any real guidance.

In fact the challenging, the pushing back, is seen as very necessary by experienced buyers and is valued: as one delegate said, ‘you have to have it, or innovation doesn’t happen’.

Digital versus face-to-face: bridging the great divide

It is a problem for buyers that there is such a marked gulf in the learning industry between technology-enabled companies and face-to-face companies. There are good reasons for this, as those around the table with long memories recalled. When blended learning became the thing around the turn of the millenium, many attempts were made to forge alliances between the tech suppliers and the more traditional instructor-led training vendors: ‘… and every single negotiation collapsed, because the instructor-led party suddenly went “Oh My God, you’re going to eat into my business”’. The divide remains.

Meanwhile buyers would love a more channel-agnostic type of supplier they could go to with a problem and have a solution put together solely on the basis of what would produce the best outcome and align with their business objectives.

However, even the M&A activity with the space has tended to reinforce this divide, with managed learning companied buying each other (Capita/Knowledgepool) and elearning companies buying each other (Epic/LINE/Leo) but with managed learning companies tending not to acquire in elearning (or vice versa).

This tends to reinforce a tendency in learning to focus on inputs rather than outcomes, which as one of our delegates pointed out is anomalous: ‘you look at other corporate interventions and it’s always about outcome’.

‘I think learning misses a trick when it doesn’t talk about channels,’ he continued; ‘If you spoke to a corporate communications practitioner, they’d be speaking all the time about channels: what channels engage, what channels don’t engage, what channels are topical … and how do you mix those together? So any sort of marketing campaign will say, OK, what are the channels we need to bring into play here to make an effective outcome?’ Too often learning programmes address only one channel, the corporate LMS.

‘We’re dreadful to deal with’

Although suppliers came in for some criticism, the buyers around our table also clearly value their expertise, and were understanding of many of the challenges they face.

Bad or inexperienced buyers mean high risk for vendors, and while many in L&D have become much more knowledgeable, and thus better at being buyers, research shows that the majority are, if anything, going backwards. ‘I personally believe it’s because they’re saying … I want to be this amazing contributor to business value, and they are using 200% more technology now than they were in 2010 … they’re saying, I’ve got this big vision and I’m going to throw the technology at it and the technology’s going to fix it for me’. And it doesn’t.

Also, vendors have to cope with the effects of organisations’ internal culture and drivers, which in the private sector often drives a lot of short-termism – tricky when, as several of our delegates opined, learning rarely works well as a quick fix. Many types of learning are inherently long term and strategic, providing frustrations for both the vendors and their sponsors in L&D when such programmes suffer due to short-term imperatives.

Then again, working for the public sector can be less than rosy. Defence, although it is able to think long term, gives vendors problems of continuity because L&D personnel are moved around so frequently. Also, its very locked down, heavyweight procurement processes are notorious for giving suppliers problems – and just occasionally putting them out of business altogether.

Another important point worth making, of course, is that none of the criticisms made of providers in our Think Tank apply to the Lumesse learning team in any way!

The skinny on how learning suppliers can better serve their clients

So to sum up some key changes that vendor companies can make if they want to be better suppliers for L&D:

  • Change the focus on time – from, ‘how can we sell them x hours of e-learning?’, to ‘how can we work with them to fit this learning into the 20 minutes away from the business their employees can just about spare?’
  • Make the chunks smaller, but the vision bigger
  • Be the expert in the room; challenge, push back – if all your experience tells you something is wrong, don’t just hold your nose and take the money
  • Focus on outcomes and channels
  • Recognise that many of the buyers are more sophisticated now, and don’t try to bamboozle them with fancy gadgets and waffle about pedagogy

In our next report from the Think Tank we’ll be talking about L&D’s relationship with technology – is it a valuable enabler … or the cause of their knottiest problems? Don’t miss it!

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