When learning professionals think about the power of enterprise learning, they usually think about how increasing competencies directly can maximize operational performance on the job. But in the increasingly competitive, services-oriented global marketplace, there are few operational elements that truly differentiate one organization from another.
Today, it is the company brand — both internal and external — that makes the difference in increased market performance. There is growing support from operational leaders who see learning as the key to creating winning value propositions for clients and prospects because learning efforts can be used to develop not only employees but also clients and markets.
The idea that learning increases organizational performance has been around for years. But beyond internal skill development, learning now is seen as a key differentiator in how companies go to market, create breakthrough products and establish positive buyer relationships that last a lifetime.
The Role of Learning in Establishing and Growing Brand Value
Classically, a brand was limited to the visual expression of a value proposition. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as “a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of the competitors.”
In recent years, however, a more holistic and integrated definition of an enterprise’s brand has emerged. Now, it often is described as the full expression of an organization’s “promise” — what the marketplace expects from the seller at all engagement points, from initial awareness to the purchase to customer service.
In his recent book, “Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands,” brand expert Marty Neumeier writes, “What exactly is a brand? It’s not a company’s logo or advertising. Those things are controlled by the company. Instead, a brand is a customer’s gut feeling about a product, service or company. If the word ‘brand’ didn’t exist, we’d have to invent a new one because no other word captures the complexity and richness of this concept. The only word that comes close is ‘reputation.’ Your reputation lies outside your control. It’s not what you say it is — it’s what they say it is. The best you can do is influence it.”
In this way, a “brand” must answer the buyer’s question, “What’s in it for me?” Some examples include how the McDonald’s brand serves up extraordinary product consistency. Automotive brand BMW promises “the ultimate” performance and driving pleasure. Retailer Wal-Mart guarantees “everyday value.”
A new challenge has arisen within organizations: How do you fully engage your employees, clients and partners in your brand? There are few enterprisewide groups that have the ability to synthesize all the new components of brand — the people, partnerships, products, services, systems and processes that must combine to maximize market value.
One of the best ways the next-generation training and development groups can support the mission of their organization is to become the necessary catalysts to make both the people and systems work better together to deliver on brand promise.
Why Learning? In a Word: Trust
The world still holds a great deal of respect for the personal authenticity and commitment of good teachers. Most people have a story of how an exceptional teacher influenced them and expanded the possibilities of their lives. This leads to something increasingly elusive these days: trust.
Because few things build trust faster, learning and development groups can support one of the most powerful brand-building tools available: employee and client education. Today, marketers and buyers value education because it is perceived to have greater buyer rewards than many traditional marketing efforts such as direct mail, advertising or some new-breed tactics such as search engine optimization.
As CLOs and learning and development groups broaden their relevance in their organizations, they align with marketing, sales, and product and solution development groups. They create ways to use their knowledge of adult learners and engagement to increase trust authentically and increase employee and customer engagement and retention rates. What is needed now is a way to engage all stakeholders to maximize brand and market value.
How to Engage Learning to Increase Brand Strength and Market Value
Ninth House long has looked at the return on investment of learning, especially in regard to leadership and management development efforts. Independent client studies at American Express and the U.S. Navy have built solid cases for leadership development efforts and, more broadly, an integrated blended learning approach. Here are five steps you can take to increase your company’s market value through your learning and leadership development programs.
1. Brand Your Learning Offerings
Learners want a high-quality experience, so make sure what you offer enhances your corporate or organizational brand. Although it sounds like Product Marketing 101, organizational learning and development executives must consider some key elements of the newly established business-to-employee communications, including the look and feel of the offerings, the development of relevant and engaging content, the messaging, the delivery modalities, and the application and measurement of results. Ensure all your learning and development resources understand they are brand stewards for your organization.
When two consumer packaged-goods providers recently merged, the new company needed to meld the two organizations’ marketing efforts to ensure it created a place where its brands could “play well” together — not just in corporate offices but on retailers’ shelves and in consumers’ kitchens. The company created learning for marketing, business-line leaders and external partners that included working sessions and long-term follow up to extend the application of the training.
2. Offer Your Learning Programs to Customers and Partners
If your company has an exceptionally high operational competency, create opportunities for customers and partners to participate. Motorola invented Six Sigma and now offers certification to both customers and prospects though Motorola University. Because Six Sigma has become a Motorola-independent standard for quality and operational success, the company provides a common-good service that brings experience and commitment to the marketplace though education and certification.
Consider offering your internal learning opportunities to your clients and include a broad array of customers and even partners. You get the added benefit of creating a peer-networking environment. Opportunities range from executive-level leadership development offerings to technical certification training programs offered through a company’s often-overlooked professional services organization. One large retailer included its IT outsource partner in learning designed to increase partnering success. When people learn something together, they forge long-term relationships with one another and your brand.
Go even further to create offerings for clients and prospects that increase their participation in your brand in a new way. Beyond its involvement with theme parks and movies, Disney offers training though its Disney Institute. Attendees get more than just content while they learn to create “experiences” — they become immersed in the Magic Kingdom.
3. Use Learning to Create and Support Community
Next-generation learning and development organizations are taking learning activities into the community, creating broader communities of interest and impermeable webs of buyer brand loyalty. Universities and social networking models offer some solid ideas with regard to starting alumni and peer-to-peer groups. Creating common and relevant experiences helps incorporate new behaviors faster and increases brand engagement.
Power your brand more by using learning to support your organization’s reputation as a solid community citizen. The Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute is good example of this kind of effort. Its mission is to be a trusted thought leader on global capital market issues that influence public policy through research, conferences and educational programs. These programs have been exceptionally influential in emerging markets such as Nigeria, where they created an ongoing leadership development forum with the Nigerian president and his senior ministers.
4. Expand the Frontier of Learning with Marketing
Take a broad view of learning and development. Ask, “Where is learning happening in our employee, client and community systems? Where could it be?” Find the market-savvy employees in your organization and team with them to leverage capabilities to create and market outstanding marketing and learning programs.
Marketers are becoming much more human behavior-oriented. Long a fascination of business-to-consumer marketers, business-to-business marketers must understand what creates brand loyalty in the organization across such industries as enterprise software and outsourced services. Because learning and development professionals understand how adults learn and change behavior, marketing and product development need your help to develop offerings that engage the marketplace.
Capitalize on learning industry awards and analyst reports. Excellence in learning can land you on one of the “Best Places to Work” lists, or it can earn you any number of awards that cover the learning market. This is one of the most powerful brand-building tactics because a third party validates it. Itron, an energy and water management supplier, was named a “Best Place to Work” by Washington CEO magazine, and it was praised for its employees’ positive comments regarding the company’s investment in learning and professional growth.
5. Develop Brand Leaders
The fastest way to increase learning and development efforts’ ability to influence brand value is by developing your leaders at all levels of the organization. Studies show that if you develop one manager or leader, you have the ability to affect that person’s entire work group.
Further, these leaders are the most likely to speak with clients, prospects, analysts and the community about your organization’s brand. Ensure they are well-equipped with both the right skills and competencies to communicate effectively and that they have the best message. Provide support for them so they can hone their messages and work with others to fully deliver on your brand’s promise.
The role of learning is changing. Learning generally (and leadership and management development specifically) pays off in direct and indirect ways by building brand value, both as “the company to do business with” and “as the place to work.”
Beyond improving individual and organizational performance within the enterprise, it is now a powerful way to ensure an organization’s brand and market value are maximized internally with employees and externally with partners, customers, prospects and market influencers.
More and more top executives recognize the operational performance and brand-value benefits of putting financial resources behind learning (specifically, leadership and management development) as key accelerants to all performance objectives.
Jeff Snipes is the CEO and co-founder of Ninth House Inc., a leadership development company. Liz Becker is the vice president of strategy and solutions. They can be reached at email@example.com.