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Keys to Success in the Lucrative Corporate Training Space

The EvoLLLution | Keys to Success in the Lucrative Customized Training Space
The customized training market is incredibly lucrative, but standing out can be a challenge.

The recession marked a number of significant changes in the American labor market, but most important was the full-force transition toward a knowledge-based economy. As the recovery began in earnest, many employers began investing more and more into employee training and development, and the already-lucrative corporate education industry became a multi-billion dollar opportunity for education providers across the United States. With so many competitors, success in this space requires institutions to truly differentiate themselves while maintaining the quality integral to their product. In this interview, Carol Howard discusses the challenges and opportunities of competing in today’s corporate education marketplace.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What can higher education institutions bring to the table that may not be available elsewhere in the corporate training marketplace?

Carol Howard (CH): Of course, one of the first things that always comes to mind is credit. An accredited institution can provide both academic and non-academic credit for professional development. That’s an important distinction in many worlds where recertification through credit or credit for promotions and salary increases is considered the norm.

Quality programming across a broad continuum is also a vital attribute associated with higher education. While there have been missteps seen primarily in the for-profit arena, most universities enjoy the well-deserved reputation that our mission is education first and foremost. However, university reputations are not built on the number of students that walk through the door but on the number of students that walk out with knowledge, skills and abilities to land them a desirable position or help them achieve greater success in their current role. And in a university that provides education spanning multiple programs of study, learning can continue from an initial foundational knowledge all the way to specialized and highly applicable training. That breadth of available curriculum provides the building blocks for a more extensive offering of corporate training programs.

But perhaps the most important distinction comes in the form of support and resources from which a higher educational institution can draw. Only a university can claim full-time faculty. These educators are well versed in learning theory and more importantly in how to apply it in an active learning-centered environment that facilitates understanding. The prestige of a university lends itself to being able to draw high-quality and often highly visible industry experts to serve as instructors and on collaborative advisory boards. And while training is often different from academic theory, the ground-breaking research that leads to and supports training is most often done in a university setting. Those are some very real and tangible differentiators that our clients are looking for in an educational partner.

Evo: In this crowded marketplace, what does it take for a university to really stand out?

CH: There are an abundant number of universities offering some sort of corporate training. And while the need for corporate training is growing, it’s still a competitive market with players from private, public and for-profit institutions vying for piece of what is believed to be a $100-billion-plus pie in North America alone. But there are differences across suppliers and those that succeed will continue to grow while maintaining their valued client base. It all starts with listening. True corporate training is not stamping out certificates or training in a one-size-fits-all approach. Sure, the objectives may sound similar in any initial client conversation: “improve performance, reduce waste, learn to communicate.” But in reality, there is usually a causative issue. A client may have some serious trust obstacles underlying their workforce’s productivity. It takes a keen ear, some well placed questions and the persistence and patience to dig deep enough to pull that out. And once you know the real need, you can develop a solution that draws from your core base of curriculum and training.

In an ideal world, that core curriculum will be modular, expandable and easily tailored to your client’s specific situation. While delivery modes, assessments, research and academic theories change and develop over time, the basic tenets of successfully organizations do not. They all need to communicate, engage, perform and resolve conflicts. So having an arsenal or library of modules directed at those core functions means that an off-the-shelf topic can be easily customized to a client’s situation by adding case studies, engagement activities and specific scenarios. Of course, this assumes you have access to instructors that are subject matter experts current in their fields, and that’s the next differentiator.

In a corporate training environment, your clients are interested in practical skills and competencies that can be put to use immediately by their workforce. Academic theory is great, but practical application is invaluable. And the best way to impart that knowledge is by having instructors out there on the front lines, often in their own consulting practices, hearing, seeing and keeping current on the latest and greatest ways to impart usable knowledge. A truly high-performing corporate training department will include a workplace application tool to aid participants in the capture and immediate application of that knowledge to their current working situation.

Once clients and their employees have an experience that includes real-world success, they will come back. And when they do, a distinguishing factor for them will be a corporate training unit that sees their clients as partners. Partnership implies shared learning and shared success. It’s not a one and done scenario. It takes time to cultivate that partnership perhaps with smaller bites of programming and multiple conversations surrounding the process. It’s the weaving together of a vision that when a training need arises, a client will pick up the phone and call you first. You may not be the biggest or the most inexpensive, but real value is found when a client knows where they can get their needs met each and every time.

Evo: Given the unique demands on customized training providers, what are some of the biggest differences between managing a customized education division and managing a more traditional education unit (even within a school of extended education)?

CH: Customized training is just that, customized. And managing a unit dedicated to corporate training and custom solutions is just as unique and non-traditional. In a traditional unit within extended education, the client is often an individual. They have a need, they seek out a solution and they have that need met through a course or a program. In corporate training, our clients are organizations: for-profit, non-profit, public and private. And each organization is a collection of real individuals who are themselves unique. While there is decision maker who ultimately determines how to meet the needs of their organization and that person is our principle client, each participant that is a part of the training provided has a say in whether or not their needs are being met individually as well as collectively as a group. That’s a lot of people to make happy under one umbrella. And each one votes with an evaluation and possibly a well-placed comment or two that can affect future business.

Another big difference is simply the mechanics involved in the corporate training system. Training and education are typically directed at the individual, so systems are set up to accommodate them. Individual students register, pay for their own courses, and interact with university systems designed to streamline their processes. By contrast, corporate clients have participants that may or may not register, may or may not pay individually and may or may not take classes together. Each client is different and there is no, “we’ve always done it this way” scenario. The metrics are different, the lead times are different, the marketing is different. It’s basically like running a business inside your university without always having the typical business systems in place.

And finally, the focus is different and broad. In a more traditional unit within extended education, the offering is aimed specifically at the need of the target market. Everyone understands that teachers need credentials and training for step increases and promotions so you can target your offerings to that audience. We all know that HR professionals need to keep current in their field and require some type of recertification on a regular basis so you can offer those credits. And while the field of IT is rapidly changing and expanding, we can determine the most desirable certifications via a community of stakeholders and provide those on a regular basis. But when your target audience is a corporate client, you need to be versed in every offering available in your extended education unit. And you must understand what your client truly needs so that you are able to package it up, tailor it and offer it when and where a client desires. It takes broad thinking as well as detailed analysis to manage a corporate training environment. It’s never the same thing twice and that’s what makes it so interesting.

This interview has been edited for length.