The Transforming Corporate Education Environment: The Impact of Alternative ProvidersDavid Frayer | Director of Executive Programs at the Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University
Given the speed of change in every industry, there’s greater recognition of the importance of ongoing education just to ensure working professionals keep pace. The corporate education marketplace is massive and as the economy continues to strengthen, investment in corporate training continues to grow. As with any lucrative market, the corporate education space is immensely competitive and numerous players—private organizations, consultancies, colleges, universities and more—leverage their unique competitive advantages to jockey for position and serve their client organizations. In this two-part interview, David Frayer shares his thoughts on the impact alternative providers have had on the corporate education landscape and reflects on the unique advantages postsecondary and alternative corporate education providers bring to the table.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What is an alternative provider?
David Frayer (DF): “Alternative” is probably not the best word to use to describe these training providers. The professional and executive education marketplace is rich with diverse organizations competing for business. Colleges and universities have been active in this space for years, but private corporate training providers, including consulting organizations that develop learning solutions for organizations, are also active.
For the purposes of this interview, we’ll define alternative providers as corporate training providers coming out of unaccredited organizations.
Evo: Why have alternative providers become so popular in recent years, especially in the professional development space?
DF: The premise that underlies the question is that alternative providers have been present in the marketplace for a long time, but suddenly they’re growing, and that universities “owned” the majority of the market. However, when we step back and look at the professional development and corporate training marketplace, no one is sure exactly how big it really is. According to one estimate from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the corporate training market—excluding informal training—is worth $172 billion in the United States alone. And universities are not the majority provider, which means there’s an awful lot of space for alternate providers, whether it’s corporate learning groups, consulting firms or individual trainers. There is just a tremendous number of players out there in this space.
One of the primary challenges is that everyone who is hoping to serve this professional development market is trying to leverage unique expertise, capabilities and approaches. That’s where the alternative providers are really making waves—they’ve got some unique advantages. One advantage is the fact that a large portion of the spend today in corporate training is on custom corporate programs. While public, open enrollment programs still maintain a healthy share of the market, the growth is in customized programs. In general, alternative providers can more easily adapt their content to fit a corporate environment because they can focus on the client’s philosophy and mindset and provide a range of solutions from the outset. Since universities have historically focused on the open enrollment market, they are often starting from a well defined and proven curriculum that may or may not easily adapt to a particular corporate orientation. This flexibility and client orientation has really helped alternative providers to grow and claim even more of the professional development playing field.
Evo: Do you think that universities actually have the opportunity to get a larger slice of the training pie?
DF: There is tremendous opportunity for universities to selectively play in the customized training and development space, especially with the growth of knowledge-based and online programming. The challenge I see evolving is the fact that—the deeper you go into the professional development and corporate training world—training alone is not what organizations are looking for. There are thousands of existing opportunities for corporations to send individuals to programs or to host internal face-to-face training programs.
The challenge is making sure that, once the training has taken place, employees can demonstrate the impact of that training in a work environment. They need to understand the subtleties of how to make it work and to track what that person has learned and adopted over time. Since employers are investing so much into employee training, they want to make sure the offering is specifically tailored to their corporate challenges. In open enrollment offerings, we would bring a mixed group together to talk about common issues and learn some frameworks and behaviors that could apply more broadly. This mindset shift towards focusing specifically on organizational needs is what’s prompted so much growth in customized programming. Now, we’re moving beyond that to ensure that the content is relevant in a corporate context, while still ensuring that the myriad of individuals you’re trying to develop all have what they need individually—and they may not all need the same things. For example, in addition to frameworks and content, some may need mentoring and coaching, others may need project-based applications where they can take the skills and apply them to learn implementation and execution requirements.
The corporate training marketplace is also going through a period in which expectations are changing. What will education look like in the future? Alternative providers are bringing new and different perspectives, technologies and capabilities to their clients. Like all organizations, employers are looking for return on training dollars and making sure that beyond just running the programs, the training interventions are having measurable impact on the organization. The value propositions of alternative providers can engage deeply with an individual, leveraging resources that some universities may find more difficult to devote. It’s hard to ask busy faculty members who are already delivering the training program in addition to their regular teaching and research responsibilities to provide additional coaching and mentoring to individuals across a wide number of organizations.
This challenge for universities is clear, but I think over time, we’re going to see much more specialization and much more blending of core capabilities, creating strategic key account alliances across both universities and alternative providers. Universities will continue to bring research-driven deep knowledge and expertise around what works—not just business fads, but things that we know for a fact can have impact and make a difference. Alternative providers may bring other unique capabilities—be it coaching and mentoring or other individualized offerings—that personalize the experience for these individuals within a client organization. It’s important to note that while a lot of universities have moved into this space, it’s hard for tier-one, research-focused universities to do this extensively without spreading faculty resources too thin. The primary role of a faculty member is to conduct research to generate new knowledge and insights – this is the higher-level value proposition of universities and their content expertise and innovation. Online learning has opened a new pathway for universities to leverage scarce faculty resources for both distant individuals and time-strapped corporate groups, while still allowing engagement around research knowledge and insights.
Evo: How have alternative providers impacted the professional education marketplace?
DF: Alternative providers have had a positive impact on this space because, at least from my perspective, competition is a good thing and drives all of us to be better. A lot of alternative providers are challenging the conventional wisdom and forcing providers across the professional education space to step back and answer fundamental questions about what we’re doing today and whether what we’re doing is having the right kind of impact—an impact that’s valued by our customers. This is a question that everybody needs to ask frequently.
The competition is creating greater impetus to tailor professional development to the needs of an individual within an organization. This is a phenomenal challenge that universities need to grapple with. The idea of making sure individuals understand, deploy and practice their learning over time, and that they continue to get engaged coaching to continue to develop and leverage their learning, is a phenomenal concept. What’s more, it’s something universities probably would have been very slow to come to on our own, but alternative providers have really brought the need for this engaged and outcomes-focused learning to the surface.
The great thing is that universities, with the bandwidth that we tend to have, can bring resources around online and individualized assessments that are robust and meaningful to corporate education engagements. But I’m not sure we would’ve gone there as rapidly without transformation of the marketplace.
Another opportunity that has become a reality with the introduction of alternative providers is that they’re allowing organizations to specialize and collaborate. All of us in the executive education and professional development marketplace are striving to be end-to-end solution providers and meet as many of the needs of our clients as we possibly can. The reality is that different players have different strengths and different capabilities that we’re going to have to blend together. For example, it’s conceivable that a single training engagement could combine an online platform brought by university, coaching and mentoring from a third-party alternative provider, and consulting expertise provided by a consulting organization, and supported by internal learning and development professionals within the organization itself. We need to be mindful of how we can blend all of those things together to come up with the right solution for an organization. This is probably going to be a huge opportunity in this space moving forward. While we’ll probably all continue to be competitors, the bigger opportunity is to figure out how we can be collaborators and work together to serve organizational needs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It is the first in a two-part series where David Frayer discusses the impact and positioning of alternative providers in the corporate training market. In the second installment, Frayer turns his attention to the competitive advantages both alternative providers and accredited postsecondary institutions bring to the table, and reflects on how the training industry may evolve over time.