Millions of people around the world have somehow come into contact with Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), an independent, nonprofit organization focused on product-safety testing and certification, but many of them probably weren’t even aware of it. The UL mark, which verifies that a product complies with the company’s safety standards, appeared on about 19 billion manufactured goods last year. The responsibility of educating the organization’s 34 different affiliates in its international network on these criteria falls to Underwriters Laboratories’ customer training strategic business unit, said Brad Smock, the group’s general manager.
“Our mission has been to focus on providing technical training on safety standards to the UL customer base in hopes that people show up to these sessions to help them design safe products and help them get those products to market faster,” Smock said. “We mostly work with our outside customers, primarily manufacturers worldwide. Forty percent of our business comes from Asia, and I would say 50 percent comes from the U.S. The rest are broken up between Europe and Latin America.”
Underwriters Laboratories learning content focuses on three main areas: business skills, safety standards and market-access solutions. All told, the company offers about 1,500 courses, and costs run between $45 and $1,500, depending on the subject matter and the delivery method used. Delivering information on these topics across linguistic and national divides is a demanding task. “We deal with safety standards, which are very difficult to translate anyway, but the bigger issues we have are not just in translation but in having qualified instructors worldwide that can deliver content that is written and facilitated in local languages,” Smock said. “Training those instructors is a monumental task for us, because we train in so many different safety standards and categories. Our content is so diverse. (Customers) need to understand multiple standards as part of one training session.”
In addition, Underwriters Laboratories has historically relied on facilitator-led programs, usually held in hotels, to bring this content to its customers. The average cost to send just one instructor to teach employees in one of its Asian affiliates is between $4,000 and $5,000, Smock said. “When you look at travel expenses and the cost of doing business in that environment, it is very difficult. At the speed we’re growing—primarily in Asia—the costs for getting to and from Asia, as well as the number of new hires that we’re expanding to there make it almost impossible to deliver in traditional facilitator-led classrooms.”
To alleviate the problems associated with delivery, Underwriters Laboratories has established an online university that features courses designed by the CMOOR Group, an e-learning solutions provider. As a result, about 15,000 learners were able to participate in learning offerings last year. “Online sessions are really starting to pay off for us now,” Smock said. “Those (travel) costs are certainly not there when you do online programs. The margins on online training for us—even after design and development—have reduced costs on those by almost 25 percent.” Also, learning programs delivered electronically are far more accessible for both facilitators and users. “We have the ability to pull in multiple instructors on one event when we do an online program,” he said. “We’re now able to get training to all of those people online as it’s needed instead of as we can get to it.”
UL University took in profits of $4.5 million last year, and Smock predicts that figure will jump to $7.2 million this year based on the run rate of current programs and offerings in the works. It also will expand geographically, with online learning portals in local dialects scheduled for implementation in eight different sites by the end of the year, he said. “Our number-one mission this year is being able to transfer those (instructor-led) courses to online versions, especially in areas such as appliances, audiovisual and safety engineering. Some of those programs are in development right now and are being moved to online versions. They’re the higher-demand courses we’ve got. We’ve also changed the focus and are looking at not only the day-to-day business—what I would call the lower tiers—but also are looking at getting some fairly significant-sized training contracts with some major companies.”
“The growth of this group is going to be around the amount of content that we can get moved,” Smock said. “We only have a limited amount of instructor capability within the company, and the demands keep getting higher and higher on those subject-matter experts. Being able to move to an online version is going to be a big help to us.”
–Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org