Most learning leaders use any number of vendors to carry out the design, development and delivery of their internal learning agenda. In a way, the learning department is also a vendor, just in a different context.

Whether you’re a cost or profit center, much of how they operate can readily transfer to make your internal department more effective. Here are 10 readily transferable steps to take to build and grow your department that parallel those in the most successful vendors.

  • Understand industry dynamics: First and foremost, successful vendors fully understand how the industry goes to market, its drivers, the competitive landscape, and the past and recent trends impacting their business growth. They always seem to be a little ahead of the game, embracing the changes taking place as the talent development industry evolves. This means they have a strong appreciation for its history, understanding what has made some firms stand the test of time and others fall by the wayside.
  • Define their purpose. The vendors that last have a very clear sense of who they are and can readily articulate their mission — why they exist; vision; where they want to be; and values, what they stand for. Most importantly, they adhere to these practices and principles but remain flexible enough to adjust to changing market conditions without wavering too far from the underlying reasons for their existence. They are focused, on point and purposeful. They have a clear understanding of what they want and need to be successful.
  • Create a business plan and structure. They have created a blueprint for their success that clearly articulates what business they’re in, what products and services they offer, how they go to market, with whom they compete, what goals they want to achieve, the structure needed to support their goals, and their financial management parameters. In other words, they are clear on their business model and how to effectively implement it.
  • Put together a strategic plan. Successful vendors realize that having a business plan describing their overall function is not enough. They look out several years, but no further than five, and articulate a strategy enabling sustainable growth on both top and bottom lines. They are clear about the metrics to evaluate their progress and success; the critical few strategic imperatives required to achieve these growth metrics; the key initiatives for each imperative; the critical actions necessary to accomplish the initiatives complete with milestones, resources and timelines; and lastly what activities they must end that interfere with their growth.
  • Develop their offer. They develop an offer specifically to meet their clientele’s needs while taking advantage of their own knowledge, expertise and experience. They understand the balance between consulting services and what products or programs they can deliver to their customers. They recognize when they need to partner with others to better round out their offer to meet customers’ demands, fully understanding the different business models between consulting and program delivery.
  • Establish their operating plan. Successful vendors create back-office systems to allow flawless execution. They put strong financial systems in place, strong management to oversee the business, manage risk appropriately and recognize what is needed to scale their businesses so they get their biggest bang for the buck as an efficiently run organization, effectively serving their customers’ interests and needs.
  • Market and sell their offer. They know what they “own” and how to get it into the marketplace. They have created a smoothly running business development engine; they understand the right and wrong time to market their wares, have accurate forecasting and cost and pricing strategies. Most importantly, they understand their promise to their customers and how to make good on it.
  • Serve their customers. Successful vendors know how to embrace and meet customer needs, to improve the processes that deliver services and products, and they ensure customer loyalty by exceeding expectations. The top firms are strict advocates and executors of second-to-none customer service. They also realize not all customers are created equal, and thus are able to meet them where they need to be met to ensure their satisfaction.
  • Recognize future trends. They are always looking ahead to assess potential trends, whether they be demographic, workplace, technological or market related, and the impact these can have on how they deliver to their clients. They embrace likely changes and those that are difficult to anticipate, steadfastly resisting what they expect will interfere with current operations. They remain on the edge so they can deliver what their clients need while growing their business.
  • Establish their growth plan. Successful vendors are always thinking about how to improve and grow, to create better solutions, to reach more customers, to create more services and/or programs, and of course to be more financially sustainable over the long haul. They aren’t interested in simply existing for the next five or so years but rather leaving a legacy 50 years from now. But they also recognize the many growth constraints such as inadequate leadership and governance, ineffective systems or toxic cultures and do what they can to minimize and eliminate these barriers.

As you reflect on these critical success factors, what can you apply to your internal learning and development operations? What changes would you make, based on these best practices, that could improve the effectiveness and efficiency of what you offer your internal customers?

Stephen L. Cohen is currently in private practice focused on strategic and business planning including senior leadership development. He is the author ofThe Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.” Comment below or email



  1. This is a succinct and highly valuable article. As I begin this journey, this one-pager discussion was right on the money!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment *
Name *
Email *