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Why Employee Learners are Different Than External Learners

Why are employee learners are different than external learners? Independent learning tech analyst John Leh explains

Making someone do something is different than making someone want to do something.  That difference is obvious when you compare the realities of employee learners with external learners.

Recently, I attended a webinar by a prominent talent management industry analyst on a classic topic — integrated talent, performance and learning management.  I saw the same tired slides showing the lifecycle of an employee from recruiting through off-boarding.  I heard all the same integrated performance management benefits I’ve heard for years since all the big-boy HCM players bought learning and performance technology companies.  Boring as all get out.

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But the thing that struck me most was that the presenter used the word compel multiple times.  “Compel” in the sense of making your employee users do something.  The tone of the presentation completely disregarded any empathy or thought about the individual who must be “compelled.”  My stomach hurt and I groaned silently for 30 seconds every 30 seconds until the hour-long session wrapped up.   I will never get that time back.

The word compel is my problem.  Our entire talent management industry is focused on forcing users to do something.  Very little is “voluntary” about using any part of an employee talent management system. If you like your job and want to keep it, do what we say.  Compel has always been the customary approach for big HCM suites, and now it apparently extends to learning.

I have a theory on why this is the case.  Integrated human capital systems cost a lot.  They’re sold on a thin, tough-to-measure business case and productivity must be measurably increased to offset the hefty cost.  HR organizations are compelled to show a return on investment, while users are compelled to do what they’re told.  Maybe this is how it will always be for employee learners.  But I feel like the LMS industry sold its soul a bit, when selling out to global HR systems companies.

This is one of the main reasons I focus exclusively on extended enterprise learning technology solutions. At the beginning of my career in 1997 as an instructional technologist, I lucked into some cool extended enterprise CBT projects and enjoyed the stark difference of approach and feel.  I’ve been engaged with extended enterprise projects on a content and enterprise LMS perspective ever since.

Extended enterprise learning technology solutions include corporate channel and customer learning, association learning, public sector learning, commercial training and academic education initiatives.  In all of these scenarios, users are mostly voluntary.  You can’t “compel” non-employees to come to your site, or compel them to buy and consume learning content, or compel them to return.  The only way they will come, learn, buy, share and return is if you create a user experience that they find relevant, meaningful and useful for their particular interests and needs.

Why external learners deserve different LMS functionality than employee learners

  1. External learners interact with an LMS when they recognize that it is worth their time, effort and money.  Internal learners interact when training is due – usually driven by compliance deadlines.
  2. External learners frequently purchase content as individuals or through an organization they represent.  Internal learners consume assigned content.
  3. External learners typically find, purchase and interact with content from multiple sources.  Internal learners can go anywhere they want as long as it is inside their employer’s LMS.
  4. When external learners enter an LMS, they are unknown users.  Internal learners are known and recognized as employees by their employer’s LMS before they ever consume content.
  5. External learners access an LMS from every conceivable technology platform, bandwidth speed, mobile device and global location.  Internal learners are always known users, with known devices and known points of access and authentication.
  6. External learners do not hate learning-related content.  On the other hand, content and LMS environments designed for employees are usually worth hating.

All of the above reasons encourage external enterprise learning technology professionals to focus on attracting and retaining users. Every part of the experience, from access, content consumption and interaction needs to be fun, modern and exciting.  It needs to be more inviting like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon or eBay.  And it needs to feel less like a traditional LMS or integrated talent management suite.  Tools that are virtually unknown in internal employee solutions (such as marketing automation, social media integration, gamification, mobile apps and interfaces, ecommerce, taxation support, search engine optimization, marketing and advertising) are key concerns and competencies in the external learning environment.

To succeed in extended enterprise learning, you must have a passion for lifelong learning.  It brings out the passion in your audience.  If you don’t, you’re likely to fall behind.  Eventually, your users will vote you out and go elsewhere.  This goes for both the vendors and extended enterprise program providers.

This is the new 2014 face of extended enterprise learning.  One part learning, one part marketing, one part technology and whole lot of fun.

Thanks for reading!



Want more insights? Watch our on-demand webinar:

The Competitive Advantage of an Externally Facing LMS

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There is tremendous diversity among the nearly 700 learning management systems available today. And when customer education is a top priority, it pays for organizations to choose an LMS designed specifically for that purpose.

What exactly are the business benefits of choosing a specialized learning management system (rather than an employee-oriented LMS) to support customer learning initiatives?

Join John Leh, Talented Learning lead analyst and CEO, and Terry Lydon, VP of Training Operations Projects at Litmos, as they explain the value of choosing an externally focused LMS. Specifically, they discuss: You’ll learn: 

  • How to quantify the benefits of customer learning
  • Which factors set a customer LMS apart from employee-focused platforms
  • What case studies reveal about the value of customer learning technology
  • How to find the best LMS for your customers’ needs, and
  • 5 areas of innovation unique to customer LMS solutions

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John Leh
About John Leh (147 Articles)
John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning, LLC. Named among the “Top 20 Global Elearning Movers and Shakers” in 2018 and 2017, John is a fiercely independent LMS selection consultant, blogger and podcaster who helps organizations develop and implement learning technology strategies – primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based on more than 20 years of industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to more than 100 learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $65 million. You can connect with John on Twitter at @JohnLeh or on LinkedIn.

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