One of the many lures of learning delivery innovation and e-learning creation has been the possibility of extending the learning experience beyond the organization’s four walls to encompass the extended enterprise of sales partners, alliance members and even customers. Extending learning to channel partners can serve both to increase revenues and to raise customer satisfaction. Additional potential benefits include gaining top-of-mind status from channels partners and conveying a consistent value proposition to those not directly employed by the enterprise. Several years after the onset of the learning revolution, it makes sense to check in to see where this stands in the market.
Every other month, Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board answers questions on a variety of topics to gauge the issues, opportunities and attitudes that make up the role of a senior learning executive. For this month’s installment, respondents were asked to provide information about the status of their efforts to take learning to their extended enterprise, including channel partners, sales agents, franchises and other non-employees. The majority of CLO respondents that have instituted extended learning are at least somewhat satisfied with their results, but their responses reveal that there is opportunity to further and improve efforts in this area.
Who’s Learning Out There?
It is important to understand whether organizations are directing learning to their extended enterprise, and if so, what kinds of learners are being targeted. The survey posed questions in this area with fairly predictable results. Of the executives who responded affirmatively to having an extended enterprise, 71 percent indicated that they do deliver learning to these external constituents. The largest number of respondents, 48 percent, offers learning to sales agents. This is not surprising, given that this group is most closely aligned with internal sales. Of those surveyed, 29 percent train their reseller network—another group that is a virtual extension of enterprise sales. This makes sense due in part to geographic disparity among resellers, the rapidity with which new product offerings are released and the intense need to convey consistent branding and messaging on a real-time basis. In addition, 42 percent of those responding train their alliance partners, indicating interest in gaining mindshare with their partner network. With the growing importance and volume of marketing alliances announced each year, it is not surprising that this area would gain attention as a way to stay top-of-mind in the channel. (See Figure 1.)
In terms of numbers of external organizations trained as part of the extended enterprise, there were responses from a low of 10 to a high of 800,000 and everything in between. The highest number of respondents, if one can spot a trend in the disparity, indicated that they train roughly 100 outside organizations. The survey also asked how many internal learning staff members are deployed to support training. Not surprisingly, these numbers varied widely as well, but were clustered around the range of four to 10. This modest number likely reflects the fact that smart organizations are now creating learning content that can serve multiple purposes (e.g., internal and external sales training), enabling them to gain the economies of scale needed to support a large and growing external audience, along with the more predictable internal one.
Paying to Play
There are extended enterprise learning organizations in the market that are known to be actual profit centers. It is a well-known fact that people mentally attribute a higher value to something that’s not given to them for free. In addition, if a learning activity requires an investment, even a small one, it is more likely that the registrant will follow through to complete the event. Given these factors, to learn more about fee structures, Business Intelligence Board members were asked about their organizations’ practices relating to charging for external training. The audience was pretty well split on this topic. Some 33 percent indicated that they charge their external partners actual fees to participate. Another 33 percent indicated that they do not charge for their learning services at all. Finally, 25 percent of respondents said that they charge a blend of actual dollars and marketing dollars. What was somewhat interesting in this area is that no one is cross-charging just cooperative marketing dollars, leading to the assumption that this practice may be falling out of favor. (See Figure 2.)
Leading the Horse to Water…
How does one get channel partners to use the learning? If you build it and they don’t come, efforts are wasted. The results of the survey show that most organizations are taking steps to encourage participation, and most of the respondents use several methods to do so. As one would expect, the vast majority (79 percent) indicate that they use a formal marketing rollout or awareness campaign. Sixty-seven percent make it a mandatory requirement for participation in the channel program. And 45 percent use either financial or promotional incentives to drive usage. On the flipside, respondents were asked about the obstacles to ensuring participation. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one option. The majority (60 percent) indicated that lack of budget on the part of the channel partners, if fees are involved, was the largest obstacle. Some 53 percent indicated that a lack of incentive for the partner was key. And 53 percent indicated that the channel partners lacked the technology infrastructure to make use of the learning experience. This factor was quite a surprise given the wide accessibility of the Web.
Speaking of the Web, the survey also explored the ways in which learning is developed and delivered to the channel to learn how much is being developed by the sponsor organization and how is it reaching its intended audience. Once again, there was a wide range of responses to these questions. In general, 70 percent of respondents develop at least half of their own learning content in-house. Of the remaining content, most respondents indicated that it is purchased off the shelf. In terms of delivery, only 30 percent deliver half or more of their training via asynchronous e-learning, which is surprising given the time and distance issues this method can help overcome. Almost 40 percent of respondents still deliver a minimum of half of their channel training via instructor.
Assessing the Impact
Measuring for effectiveness is key to any well-executed learning program, and training the external enterprise is no exception. But overall, it would appear that fewer organizations than one might think are measuring beyond the usual learning satisfaction metrics. Typically, the largest percentage, or 79 percent of respondents, said that they measure at Kirkpatrick Level 1 for learner satisfaction. Fifty percent administer some testing and assessment and benchmark effectiveness based on scores. Linking back to charging for external learning, 29 percent measure profitability of the learning business itself, but only 50 percent indicated that they measure effectiveness based on an increase in channel-related revenue. Finally, only 9 percent measure whether there has been any correlation between channels training and entry into new markets. This is surprising because channel partners are often brought into the fold expressly to gain entry into new vertical markets or geographic areas not otherwise covered by the internal sales structure. (See Figure 3.)
Despite the fact that the majority of respondents do not seem to have formal measurements in place to quantify effectiveness, many indicated seeing overall business improvement as a result of the extended learning process. Some 63 percent indicated that they’ve seen improvement in customer service delivered by their business channels. It’s to be expected that 60 percent have seen a reduction in expenses related to training the extended enterprise, since having a formal process in place usually reduces the need for one-time customized learning events.
In terms of CLOs’ satisfaction with their extended enterprise learning solution, only 11 percent are extremely satisfied so far. Another 51 percent are somewhat satisfied. On the positive front, none of the respondents indicated that they are highly dissatisfied with their efforts to date.
It is clear from the results of this survey that the market has made some but not major progress in the extended enterprise learning space, leaving ample opportunity for improvement and growth. Virtually every organization has an extended enterprise, even without an external sales channel, because most have customers. The organization can benefit from higher brand loyalty by employing a learning approach, especially with highly technical products or services. Learning organizations need to take advantage of their internal learning investments to repurpose materials they already have to jump-start their efforts to engage channels partners and customers alike. In addition, the existing internal learning team can serve both internal and external audiences if the effort is well planned and executed. It is important to start with the overall enterprise goals for the channel and build a plan that supports those goals. Once the plan is in place, it is profoundly important to associate formal metrics to the learning events in order to justify the efforts and to lay the groundwork for future investments.
Lisa Rowan is program manager of HR and staffing services research at IDC, a global market intelligence and advisory firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.