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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

April Big Question - Content Vendor Value

Since I'm likely not going to be blogging for about a week starting Friday, I thought I'd get an early jump on this month's Big Question from LCB - ILT and Off-the-Shelf Vendors - What Should They Do?

I'll be curious to see what kinds of responses come out around this topic. There's really a lot at stake in this question in that it goes far beyond the question. The reality is that all providers of content are competing in a flat world, with easy access to virtually every other information source and many different, alternative means of content creation. In this world, content producers face real challenges. And this isn't just in corporate training and education. My post - Disruptive Changes in Learning - points to examples such as TV, Music, Press, etc. If you are a producer of content, you are now competing with many new sources.

As a content vendor providing training (Instructor Led or eLearning), you are naturally having to compete with each person's ability to find information via a Google search or through access to a service like Safari (which makes all of the O'Reilly books fully searchable).

One of the most important questions is:
What's the added value provided by content providers over alternative information sources?
While I often hear lots of answers to these from vendors, it's becoming increasingly difficult for them to have a compelling differentiation. So, there's real problems, especially if you stay with traditional models of Courses and Courseware - see Course and Courseware are Fading - The Future of eLearning. You can't afford to be in that business going forward.

(One exception to this rule - for things like most compliance training where companies are wanting to "check the box" - they will continue to use courses and will want short versions and box checking. Lowest cost will dominate. But courses and courseware will remain.)

The good news is that there's also some hope for innovative companies who can move beyond the business of Courses and Courseware. Generally customers are buying something more than a course or courseware. In IT world, they are transitioning their staff from Java to .Net or from .Net 1.0 to .Net 2.0. In sales they are moving to consultative selling. It might be a culture change initiative. Or employee engagement. Or customer satisfaction. Etc. There's always more to the picture than providing courses and courseware.

My belief is that there's great opportunity to make smart use of new kinds of eLearning Solutions that will have real impact on the actual results that people care about. Take customer satisfaction. In a recent solution for a large retailer, we provided tools that:
  • Showed customer satisfaction numbers (that already existed) at the store level so that store managers could identify areas where they needed work.
  • Provided a variety of possible interventions the store manager could use (some with content, some that were more like a series of meetings-in-a-box).
  • Had store managers create an action plan composed of the steps of these interventions and had that approved with their district manager.
  • Helped them remember needed steps and track progress.
  • Prompted the district manager's involvement appropriately to reinforce actions.
  • Tracked the results so we could figure out what interventions worked and which didn't.
This intervention is worth many millions of dollars to the client. Far more than it cost to implement. It attacks the issue of helping store managers to improve customer satisfaction. While there's quite a bit of content created, it's not really about the content.

There's also this old CEO adage:
There's margin in mystery.
In other words, because we aren't coming in and saying "here's some content we are selling you" - instead, it's a whole system, and tracking, and hitting people with communication over time - it's not as obvious what's going on. Under the hood, it's not terribly complicated, but it's still got some mystery. Probably the best example of this that I've ever worked on was eHarmony. If you've ever taken a personality profile, you know how they come back and seem to know you. eHarmony does that as well. It allows them to command a premium. Same thing is true of a more recent client MyShape. When there's mystery, you can command a premium. More on this in Matching Algorithm.

If you look at things like Gallup's Q12 Employee Engagement system, it's not terribly complicated, but it sells well because of the mystery.

Now the good news is that it's easier than ever to create solutions that are more interesting than simple courses and courseware. You can hit people many times over the course of time. You can hit them in new ways. On new devices. In virtual training environments (sandboxes). As an example, if I've got a conversion of an IT staff to .Net 2.0, I probably don't want to ship them all to classes at one time. Rather, I'd like to get them trained up a bit and then have them get coached over the course of time. Plus, when it's new technology, having to get it set-up is always a pain as well - maybe you can provide sandboxing support. Further, I probably have some superstars that I give more training to at the start and then provide them with tools and systems to get the rest of the staff up-to-speed. Do you think they can do that on their own? Probably not well. But with some support they might be able to. Maybe the management needs some training as well, but that won't be classroom. Maybe they need some on-going coaching over the beginning of the project. In fact, if you are providing risk reduction over the first few projects, then maybe the solution isn't really training on .Net 2.0 but rather a transition to .Net 2.0 development capability. There's likely a suite of offerings and a series of things that need to happen to get them transitioned. If it was only getting some folks up to speed on .Net 2.0, well they could read a book or go use Google. There's a lot of other barriers.

I know that I'm probably not helping define a specific enough game plan for any vendor and maybe this isn't practical for some people. But my suspicion is that most vendors need to move in this direction in order to sustain margins.

I'm hopeful that we are going to see some interesting discussions on this topic.

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