Extended Learning – When learners are also outside company boundaries

From the understanding of modern companies, the value chain does not end with the employees in their own service. These companies rather integrate their internal and external partners in the various development and production stages primarily through IT, in order to work together more effectively and efficiently. This integration is called Extended Enterprise.

In the meantime, this approach is increasingly being extended to individual learning content or even the entire range of training courses, some of which are geared to the specific target groups of suppliers. For example, these can be occupational safety measures for service providers and tradesmen on the company’s own premises, but also worldwide importers and wholesalers in order to strengthen sales. Conceivable is also a range up to the processors of intermediate products, e.g. craftsmen, or even consumers and end customers.

Furthermore, according to my observations, it is becoming increasingly accepted that money should – and can – also be earned externally with extended training offers. This results in various requirements that have to be considered in advance in order to achieve sustainable success with such a business model: Planning, conception, quality, provision, price model, billing, user experience, competition.

With a consistently customer-oriented approach this can be successful!

Introduction

The learning world was structured clearly and distinctly for many years, almost decades:

  • The training area focused on marketing, sales and service.
  • The human resources department took care of the further development of its own employees.
  • The target groups were reached through face-to-face training. This was both motivating for the participant and a welcome change in everyday working life. After all, you weren’t alone. Rather, they met colleagues there and expanded their personal network in the evening with a beer or wine.
  • The planning of further training was largely the responsibility of the supervisor. The initiative for further training measures (ideally) came from the employee. Often, however, the manager was also faced with the task of identifying training needs for the individual, which was certainly addressed or “sold” as an incentive.
  • Repairs and service information were intended for after sales.
  • And the customer received an operating manual!

And now this: In the productive areas you have to deal with networking, information transparency, assistance systems and decentralized decisions,… – also known as Industry 4.0. And Blended Learning, preLearning, flipped classrooms, webinars, distance learning, … have already entered the world of learning or are moving in at the moment!

Why do I mention these two modern “worlds” in one breath? On the one hand, the “production approaches” aim at a high integration of man and machine. On the other hand, the new learning methods enable extended access to target groups with learning content and partly situational information, which have not been the focus up to now, but which open up interesting potential: First and second tier suppliers, more remote distributors, customers. And pupils and students can also be bound early, especially under the impression of a shortage of skilled workers.

I am convinced that learning, working and information in the workplace must and will grow closer together in order to provide the support of affected people and ultimately achieve the desired effects. The necessary personal skills and situational provision of information flow too far from each other in order to be able to adequately work and solve concrete tasks on site.

Classic Learning Management Systems (LMS) usually focus on the internal learner. He is known via the personnel system and has (ideally) an operational e-mail access, so that these people can be reached out to in their working environment.

For external target groups, however, things are already looking more problematic: First of all, the person in question is usually unknown, access to the system must be granted from outside, he does not yet know anything about his luck, the expectations are different, …

For these reasons, an Extended Enterprise training approach, I will refer to Extended Learning for simplicity, is very different from an internal distance learning offering. I will discuss the individual characteristics in the following text.

What does Extended Enterprise for the company, the supplier?

Extended Learning – when learners are outside the company.

First of all, there are quite pragmatic advantages, I call them “first degree benefits”:

  • The provider gets to know the individual players in the value-added chain.
  • It is possible to address external target groups directly.
  • Learning and information offers are available to these actors “first-hand”.
  • The provider has the sovereignty over the design of the content and above all over the influence on the “messages” to be sent.
  • Proof of participation and our own documentation are created, e.g. to comply with legal requirements (Attention: data protection!).
  • The supplier can provide product-compliant information, such as various instructions and thus reduce misuse and consequently warranty and goodwill costs.

But I also see a benefit of “second degree” benefits, which are not so obvious at first glance:

  • The protagonists in the value chain become transparent – with all their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Offers and measures can, I call this once provocative, “according to Facebook or Google
    principle” be adapted and made available to individual needs and goals.
  • The provider can develop tailor-made offers and place them directly at the learner.
  • As a result, intermediate stages, e.g. wholesale stores, lose influence on the target groups.
  • Extensive synergies arise for the marketing with regard to the knowledge of learners and users.

Of course, not every company has this second degree benefit directly in mind when actually only external target groups are to be reached. But if you think about the Extended Enterprise approach consistently, exactly these (and more) potentials result! With this in mind, I am currently observing, for example, the founding of the academy of a German news magazine with great interest, which took place together with a distance learning university. This is certainly an interesting business model and I believe it will be successful.

In my following considerations I will first focus on the benefits of the first degree, which should play the greatest role at the beginning of most considerations, and on the “real” external users. For me, these are the people who have no supplier function for the provider and are attracted exclusively by the offer. At the same time, however, I will try to identify the differences with learners who are more closely integrated into the value chain (e.g. suppliers and sales levels).

Also, for the Extended Learning approach, the questions that I described in the title topic of the LMS, Autorentools & Co. 2017/2018 of the eLearning Journals Learning Management Systems: “How to successfully introduce an LMS” apply first:

  • Who is learning?
  • What does the target group learn?
  • How does the target group learn?
  • When will the target group learn?
  • Where does the target group learn?
  • How does the target group learn?

Only when you have adequately addressed these questions and formulated your answers, you will know the necessary requirements for your Extended Learning approach and be able to create the prerequisites for a successful market presence.

However, I would like to expand on these questions at one point:

  • How much should the learner pay for the product?
Extended Learning – A change of perspective is necessary!

It must be clarified in advance whether payment is due at all for services rendered. In other words: Should money be earned with the new target groups?

If you delete the “much” in this question, you will have to deal with another aspect and a special challenge: Namely, how should the customer pay? But more of that later!

And perhaps you have already noticed it in the last question: I introduce the customer term at this point (quasi from behind)! Because I consider a customer understanding to be elementary when you deal with the Extended Enterprise model. Services (products!) are provided here and called up and (quite often) paid (customer!) for by external learners. Even if the classical training area is somewhat more difficult with such a role. It is now a matter of consistently identifying and fulfilling customer needs and settling accounts at the end.

Even if, for example, suppliers don’t pay a price for a training product, it certainly helps to keep these groups of learners as customers, since the approach to the needs and the products to be provided will be a completely different one from the previous approach: How can wishes be recognized and fulfilled (at an early stage)?

In summary, an Extended Learning approach opens up various new, sometimes unfamiliar perspectives for a training area:

  • New target groups arise for which adapted or new products have to be created.
  • This results in external, clearly measurable and assignable sales.
  • The requirements and expectations of content, processes, systems and communication are changing and becoming more complex.
  • Customer satisfaction plays an important role. “Happy sheets” as the sole means of choice have had their day!
  • Marketing and communication of the own offer take over an important role. No one will come by on their own!
  • The internal and external perception is also changing: The training area in direct external (customer) contact with direct influence on the image of a company!

All in all, further professionalization is necessary. In my experience, internal learners (customers) usually also benefit from this!

Processes and platform

Normally in my thinking I put the content before the platform (Content First!). In Extended Learning, however, the customer will first experience the learning platform of a company before (hopefully) quality content is provided. So, I’m going to reverse the order in this case. Because here, to a large extent, technology leaves the first impression and functions as the company’s calling card!

  • How and where can I find the training offer?
  • How attractive, clear, up-to-date and intuitive is the site?
  • How functional is the catalogue?
  • But above all: How are the products/offers presented?
  • How easy is the registration process?
  • What is the registration/booking process like?
  • Is the payment process simple, flexible, stringent and secure?
  • Not to be underestimated and of particular importance in the context of changing data protection regulations: How trustworthy and above all more reliable are the customer data (master and transaction data)?

I would like to make a few fundamental observations, particularly on communication:

The “Homepage” of the training area

To the common understanding: This is for your prospective/potential (training) customers the first side attainable in the Internet. It can be found easily and directly (with as few clicks as possible!) via the company’s website and opened in parallel via a self-explanatory URL. Please note that with this website you are also subject to the CI regulations (Corporate Identity) of your company!

This site is attractive, clear, up-to-date, intuitive and makes you want more. Ideally, the information provided is so interesting that a potential customer surfs about the various contents and offers and a known learner also learns something new and likes to come back later.

These considerations alone give rise to typical “challenges”:

  • How integrated are the company website and the training course landing page? Technically and above all in the perception of the user.
  • In which system (CMS = Content Management System) is the landing page managed?
  • Can the CI requirements be implemented?
  • Is the CMS part of the LMS or will the
    LMS-specific functions integrated elsewhere?
  • Which functions does the LMS provide? Which functions come from the website?
  • Who maintains the website? Which processes are set up for regular updates?
  • How can individual (regional) appearances be realized if several organizations (e.g. country or product/topic specific academies) access the same system?
  • How can brand or product-specific appearances be realized within an organization?
  • Do the structures in the backup allow only one database to be set up for multiple performances? This would significantly reduce operating and maintenance costs.
  • Which languages should be supported?
  • Which authorizations are possible for different users and how flexible is the depictable role model?
  • How can an existing customer database and the user administration of the LMS correspond, so that redundant data management is not necessary?
  • How can the customer generate interest on the one hand and a low entry threshold on the other hand, so that a targeted approach and communication can result from this?

All these (and more) questions are already selection criteria for an LMS and should be known in advance and formulated as a requirement.

In my opinion, the catalogue is a very important success factor. I always like to call it the showcase of the training area, which is supposed to motivate people to enter and “spend time”. For this reason, I dedicate a separate chapter to this LMS function.

Catalogue

Let me begin with three “classics”:

Case 1: In order for an interested customer to be able to view the training offer in the catalogue, a personal registration is necessary. Alternatively, the customer can access the training offer anonymously via the user “Guest” and the password “Guest”. The learner gets the corresponding information in the FAQ…

The motivation behind it:

  • Our contents are worth protecting. Not everybody can see that!
  • The LMS does not support a freely accessible catalog.

Case 2: The training offer is maintained in the LMS, but additionally displayed in parallel on the website in the CMS (redundant) for non-registered users.

The reasons:

  • Lack of integration of the LMS into the company website.
  • This is the only way to implement the CI specifications in the catalogue.
  • The catalogue is therefore maintained (redundantly) in the CMS of the company website.

Case 3: The training offers have a different quality in the description of the individual measures.

  • One offer is editorially elaborated in the description, while the other gives keywords in indents, here is only one title and there the processing times are missing.
  • The learning objectives are formulated in one measure, in the other they are completely missing.

That’s a common problem:

  • Different contact persons
  • Missing specifications and standards
  • Lack of awareness of the “promotional release” of this information

I refer to the catalogue as function on the website where a customer can view the offer of your training area or your company. The catalogue is your shop window to the customer!

My image of a shop window means that all the necessary information is available in one place, compactly and in sufficiently high quality. The catalogue has to fulfil various functions:

  • The offer is, depending on the role, individualized or unrestricted available. Of course, there may be individual offers that are only visible after registration or login or that are not even visible to specific target groups.
  • Intuitive search and filter functions make it easy to find suitable offers. The (full text) search should run across several definable database fields, such as title, subtitle, description, learning objectives, location and more. Filtering results includes several options: Method, date, venue, price, …
  • The description of training offers (content, learning objectives, prerequisites, …), which I certainly regard as “more complex products”, gives the customer a comprehensive understanding at first reading whether an offer is interesting and suitable for him. I always like to call this a “picture”. Ideally these are also displayed without further clicks in the depth, so that the customer can inform himself compactly and find his suitable product.
  • Offers are structured or categorized: thematically, by competence (e.g. beginner, advanced, expert), target group, … to quickly find suitable individual results here as well.
  • Teasing is supported: Images can be stored, a WBT can be started and edited for a defined time (e.g. 3 minutes) without obligation after registration, an evaluation function is available.
  • Registered users/customers have access to a memory and shopping basket function.
  • If a customer has registered, he already receives suitable offers on the start page, which orient themselves at his last purchases or also searches. The use of cookies, if desired and appropriate to the company’s appearance, would even enable individual offers before the customer has registered or even logged in!
  • The catalogue is the gateway to ordering: registrations can be made immediately.

Well-known online stores such as Amazon, Zalando, Spotify, iTunes and others can be used as references. Of course, these are shops organized exclusively on selling and buying experience and therefore only comparable to a professionally oriented training offer to a limited extent. But these experiences also set standards for the customer and raise expectations as to how a transaction should proceed.

And why shouldn’t expansion-oriented training areas or academies also benefit from such ideas and tools?

The training catalogue of your LMS – shop window to the customer.

Contents

For the employee, the learning situation is usually clearly outlined: Task and function in the company, further development/career goals, training requirements, often company-specific, partly categorized as “internal” content, learning time = working time, training history.

The external customer is somewhat different, more complex. As a rule, circumstances, background, motivation, learning time and other framework conditions are not known. And not all content is intended for external use.

This results in some requirements for the conceptual design of learning content:

  • Qualitatively appealing contents: conceptual, methodic, didactic, graphic, impression. This justifies a price from the customer’s point of view and the internal learners also profit from it!
  • Synergetic use of content intended for internal and external use. This can be achieved, for example, through a small-scale modularization and the subsequent combination of these individual modules into internal and external offers/packages with a (hopefully) high reuse rate.
  • The starting point is a structured planning process: topic identification/requirement query, prioritization, planning and subsequent optimization and further development.The training catalogue of your LMS – shop window to the customer.

As a rule, the internally relevant topics arise from specific operational contexts, such as product launches, new software, new processes or regulations (e.g. compliance, data protection).

According to my experience, the interests of external customers lie above all in company-specific learning content, such as products, repair and maintenance information, processes, … But very often the needs are also in the basic area, e.g. updating basic knowledge.

I have noticed that a first-hand basic offer is certainly of interest. Customers often look for one-stop learning before they have to log on to other portals. Such bases do not always have to be company- or brand-specific. Of course, it would have a certain charm, if it corresponds to the CI.

With such an offer, the training area would “deposit” on the virtual image account of the company or the brand and often attract younger interested parties, such as pupils, trainees and students. If necessary, is it sufficient to buy in existing content with the aim of submitting a comprehensive offer? But: The quality must be right and match the rest of the offer!

I am currently experiencing a discussion with a customer: Learning content must be technically state-of-the-art and therefore responsive!?! What applies to a learning platform, namely that it is responsive, does not necessarily, in my opinion, also apply to all content! I take a more differentiated view: it depends! Depending on the learning format, target group and content, it makes sense to dispense with responsiveness and to optimize the content to a defined degree so that it runs for example on a tablet computer and a laptop/PC. Not every learning content and every learning format is suitable for use on a smartphone and the frequently associated learning situation (mobile, in between, …)!

One final aspect on the subject of content: how do you feel in a professional shop where only a small part of the shelves is half full? There’s certainly something missing, isn’t there? And if you still have to pay for admission or log in with your personal data at the entrance – so to speak as a professional user?

With this picture I would like to show that Extended Learning with external customers only makes sense if you also have something to offer in terms of quantity and quality. I am thinking of a “more extensive” offer (methodically, content-wise) with various selection options.

Think strategically. If this offer is not yet available at the beginning, it may be expedient to develop a strategy and subsequent implementation planning based on the current situation, as you want to introduce and successively expand Extended Learning: from individual supplier offers (occupational safety on the factory premises) in the first year to first product trainings for customers in (perhaps) the third year.

Prices, price concept and payment

Have you decided to offer paid training as part of Extended Learning? I think this is quite justified – why does everything always have to be free or given away? I am convinced that good products can also cost something and are also appreciated by the buyers, as long as the products are good! And what if it expands the scope of action of the training area?!? However, a number of points must now be considered.

The prices and the price concept

Pay per view, usage restrictions for paid content (e.g. for one or two years) or multiple use of a content, subscriptions, silver line, gold line, platinum line. There are different approaches to price learning content and offers. Some are somewhat more flexible for the customer (pay per view), others, such as the subscription model, bind a customer in the long term. Ultimately, the aim is to present the (possibly different) target groups with a largely suitable offer that they accept and encourage them to buy. In the end, this can also be a combination of different options.

What does this mean in concrete terms for your requirements?

  • The system (LMS) can implement various customer-specific price models in parallel. The customer must be able to change from one price concept to another (of course within the scope of the contractual conditions) if his learning habits change!
  • The LMS consequently carries a product with several prices, depending on the chosen price model. On the one hand, this can be illustrated with several (individual) prices stored in the system for a product, which is time-consuming. On the other hand, “discount thinking” is also available for subscriptions: 100% discount on product category “X” in subscription model “Y” means that the product in question is free of charge for the customer concerned with the subscription in question. Not all LMS support both solutions – be it standard or an adaption!
  • Company subscriptions: You may be dealing with organizations that purchase access or subscriptions for their personalized members. I am thinking, for example, of associations or NPO/NGO as Extended Learning providers that are more frequently affected. This would be the simpler case, since the users or learners are known and can be assigned and billed accordingly. A possible discount will probably be granted in sum on the individual subscriptions. But what if customers now take over e.g. 4 subscriptions, but different people should/want to use them? For example: 4 places will be booked in a webinar, but it is not yet known which participant will be present. In my experience, you will always have to create special solutions in the LMS for such constellations, as far as these (possible) scenarios have been identified once. Of course, this requires a certain flexibility and above all willingness on the part of LMS and LMS providers!

Think in actions to attract external customers:

  • Test accesses
  • Temporary trial subscriptions at a lower total price
  • Discount campaigns
  • Personalized (one-time) voucher codes for individual offers (so that they can be viewed free of charge, for example) and which can be redeemed in the LMS. This could be, for example, a code for e-product training that is issued to interested (potential) customers at a trade fair and can/shall support a purchase decision.

Of course, these options must also be supported by the LMS!

Paying

If your offers are free of charge for the learner, you can skip the following lines. If individual (or all) offers cost something, you will also have to install payment options.

First, I would like to formulate some requirements from a pragmatic customer perspective. I assume that you as a provider are not really inclined to write invoices and check their receipt. Therefore: simple, suitable, direct, trustworthy and secure! The experiences made on the Internet, especially in online shops, also play a major role.

PayPal, credit cards and, at least in Germany, direct or instant bank transfers are a must! You can order and integrate these services directly yourself, which only really pays off with a certain volume, however, or can be processed via a payment provider. This may cost some money (around 5%), but they use established processes for the customer and for themselves, which significantly minimize the effort and the risk of default (in the case of invoice payment).

Usually you will negotiate your own contract with a payment provider and integrate the services into the LMS. Let the LMS provider show you some references!

I would like to sensitize you (as a non-tax consultant) to an underestimated topic briefly and crisply, not advise you: Where money flows, there is also the (added-value) tax! Especially with private customers, and you will often have to deal with them. As a rule, electronic services, such as e-texts, online training and webinars, are taxable in the country of the private learner (country of consumption principle, valid in the EU). That would require a lot of effort. Of course, you can exclude private customers abroad due to this effort. But this in turn also reduces the target groups, which may have an influence on the profitability of your Extended Learning solution.

Ultimately, you have to think laterally in these questions and look for options with a tax consultant. Very often the payment providers already offer standard solutions!

This last aspect is all the more relevant, because I meet people who are always willing to learn, who take their training and further education into their own responsibility and hands and are prepared to pay out of their own pockets accordingly.

Learner Experience

In an Extended Learning approach, I consider a positive, state-of-the-art learning experience to be indispensable. By this I mean the different impressions and experiences that a customer experiences on the platform during the purchase process (from interest, to actual purchase and the usage). After all, the external customer pays for services and can expect professional services.

Below are a few examples, some of which you have already encountered:

  • How do I find the training provider’s landing page? Hidden on the company’s website, directly via search engines (search engine optimization!).
  • How does the landing page look like? Compared to the previous company page, CI, compared to the catalogue.
  • How intuitive is the landing page and can the various functions (catalog, registration, contact) be operated?
  • Is the catalogue clear, structured and informative?
  • How many clicks do I get to the offer?
  • How is the registration process experienced? How long does the (now common) confirmation e-mail take to enter my e-mail account?
  • Which (really necessary) customer master data is required? Does all this seem serious and do I feel safe?
  • eLearning Journal | Kaufberater & Markt 2018/2019: LMS, Authoring Tools & Co.
  • How do I get support or help? FAQ (Frequently asked Questions), contact, response times.
  • Are system changes, if any, noticeable: design/appearance, construction of new tabs / windows, loading times.

Here again: Look for the well-known online shops and orient yourself to the current solutions. These shops, in my opinion, set the standards and influence the expectations of the customers!

Finally, as a practical example, I look again at the well-known example of the online academy of the well-known news magazine, which initially resembles a (responsive) website experience. In terms of CI and marketing, that’s how I experience this appearance, they do almost everything right here!

Interestingly, the system changes with the registration into the stored LMS of the participating remote universities: different design and effect, different colors, different responsiveness. All in all, a noticeable loss of quality can be experienced!

And another reference to synergies: Your suppliers and internal colleagues will of course also benefit directly from these considerations and will certainly appreciate these optimizations, since a large part of them takes place in the LMS and the processes and functions depicted.

Stumbling blocks

At this point I would like to discuss some typical pitfalls with Extended Learning:

  • Cooperate with marketing! Especially if you want to reach customers. Experience has shown that they lack access and that they first have to build it up. Marketing usually has the appropriate channels and certainly also enjoys professional interactive content, which would otherwise have to be procured through other channels (marketing agencies).
  • Think consistently from the customer’s point of view! This is a bit more complex and is not understood by every colleague, but you will only receive the necessary acceptance and willingness to pay in this way.
  • Do not set your prices too low (but also not too high). At the beginning of pricing, there is a tendency to be too deep stacked and too cheap. First of all, look at the competitors (I am thinking of so-called “training companies”). You will be amazed at what your products is worth on the market! In the worst case, you can always become cheaper, more expensive is, in my experience, rather difficult.
  • Do you ask your customers for an accepted price?!? Gladly this is the first approach – which I see however critically: You will not receive objective answers, with which you can calculate and operate meaningfully! One customer has no idea, the other customer wants everything cheap (for free) and fast, and the next customer is willing to pay a little more.
  • Do not assume that your current LMS is suitable for Extended Learning! Think consistently new from the customer and then compare the requirements with the status quo. Perhaps the day has now come when you question the previous LMS and initiate the change that you have been feeling in your stomach for a long time?
  • If you are looking for a new LMS, it is important to know and have described the requirements in advance. This is the only way to find the right system and the right provider for you on the market and to establish an accepted solution.

Recap

Extended Learning, the learning-oriented approach of Extended Enterprise, offers additional potential to reach people outside the company with training offers and learning content. This can begin with the direct suppliers and continue through the importers and dealers to the customers. It is important to know the needs and requirements of the target groups and to take them into account in the offers. It is also helpful to see all learners as customers.

Extended Learning can also be the result of a longer development process. The current range and the existing structures are not always suitable for immediate market launch. Then one should rather wait a little and make the necessary preparations.

The Learning Management System is particularly important. It is on the one hand only a software, but on the other hand the vehicle to reach the customer. With the right offer, the right processes and the customer-oriented LMS, successful Extended Learning stands – and falls.


The Author

Matthias Brockerhoff

has set impulses in over 300 learning projects in more than 15 years as a client, contractor, project manager and consultant and has extensive experience in various branches and target groups. As of 2010, he has been supporting smaller and larger companies in making successful E-Distance and Blended Learning.


Contact:

Matthias Brockerhoff

medic-Con. GmbH

Stuttgarter Str. 64
D-71229 Leonberg

Phone: +49 (0) 7152 / 33 56 47

mb@medic-con.de
www.medic-con.de