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Extended Enterprise Learning: Can You Get There From Here?

How do you extended enterprise learning program? 5 challenges HR-minded learning organizations face

Are you an HR or L&D professional trying to figure out how to expand your training programs to customers, channel partners or others outside of your organization’s walls?  Are you asking yourself, “Where should I start?  What should I know before I begin?  And how will I know if I’m heading in the right direction?”

As a specialist in extended enterprise learning technologies, I get it.  I hear those questions all the time.  So let me try to make the path easier for you to navigate.

Extended Enterprise Learning: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

Imagine for a moment that we’re Australian tourists who just landed in Boston for a week.  Or let’s say we’re Americans hiking together in the Scottish Highlands.  When locals speak in their dialect, we recognize the language as English, yet we still don’t have a clue what they mean.  Words swirl around in a vaguely familiar cloud, yet when we try to join the conversation, the exchange becomes stilted and unnatural.  It’s an odd sensation.  That’s usually how HR and training professionals react when stepping into the realm of extended enterprise learning.

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In this case, Google Translate won’t be able to help you get your bearings.  So I’ll start by defining the core concept.  Think of “extended enterprise learning” as any training effort targeted at non-employee “external” audiences — customers, prospects, channel partners and others outside of your organization’s walls, but within your business value chain.

Many HR and L&D professionals are proficient at speaking native “organizational learning” language.  They are fluent in strategies and technologies related to employee training, performance and development.  However, they struggle to apply their expertise to external audience needs.  And when they try to understand stakeholders from business units, sales or customer service departments it’s like trying to speak a foreign language altogether.

Here’s the most important distinction to keep in mind:  Departments that care about educating external audiences are not investing in these programs because compliance rules require it but because these learning programs lead to a direct, measurable business impact.  Profit-minded business functions like sales, marketing and customer service rely on learning as a way to sell more products and services, extend revenue-generating relationships, boost business productivity and increase profitability.  What’s more, they can prove it.

Here’s another important distinction:  Because extended enterprise learners pursue training voluntarily, you’ll need appropriate psychology to attract, engage and support them.  Voluntary learners can’t be coerced into completing a course.  They need relevant, meaningful incentives to read your promotions, to visit your learning portal, to purchase and complete content — and then to return for more, again and again.

So, how do you make that work?  Let’s get to it.

Extended Enterprise Learning: Worth Going the Extra Mile

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Fueled by a surge of cloud-based innovation from hundreds of new learning technology vendors, extended enterprise learning is without a doubt the hottest learning management system trend in 2017.  And although extended enterprise learning is much different (or rather broader and more complex) than employee training, there is no reason why learning leaders should hesitate to move forward.

Here’s the good news. I’ve been on the front lines of many customer and partner LMS implementations and I can assure you, extended enterprise programs don’t necessarily require a huge upfront investment.  In fact, your organization may be able to leverage the same learning platform you use now for employee training.  Often, it’s smart to start small, prove that the program achieves the desired outcome, and then build on that success over time.  To get started, you need only three elements:

1) Appropriate content
2) An extended enterprise LMS, and
3) A measurable business case that justifies this business investment

Let’s take a quick look at each of these components.

Extended Enterprise LMS Basics

As the backbone of customer and partner learning programs, an extended enterprise LMS is designed to serve multiple audiences – differently.  The LMS must organize and manage learning content (in multiple formats), organize and track information about various learners, and manage the relationships between learners, learning content and your organization. It also should enable your organization to track the status and progress of every training participant so you can measure outcomes related to specific business objectives.

Together with business units, you’ll need to define content goals and scope.  You’ll also need to determine how to market the content through the LMS and other channels, how long each content element should be available to your audience, how to measure learning effectiveness, and how to review and revise content, over time.

But above all, to fund the content and the LMS, you’ll need to develop a measurable business case. This is essential because it formalizes the program blueprint and rationale in the language of executives with profit/loss responsibility.  When framing your case, you’ll want to focus on why and how the organization will benefit from this investment, including specific performance indicators and anticipated outcomes — ideally supported by results from similar/past programs. The more thoughtful and specific you are in providing key metrics, the more likely you’ll receive approval to move forward with an initial budget for a proof-of-concept or pilot program.

How to Launch an Extended Enterprise Learning Program Without Losing Your Way

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So, how do you put these three learning program elements into motion?  What technology capabilities do you need?  How will you know if your business case speaks the language of business decision makers?  Where does the budget come from?  How do you measure success?

Although I can’t answer all of those questions fully in a single blog post, I can point you in the right direction with five steps for successful outcomes:

Step 1:  Conduct an LMS Audit

You’ll want to answer multiple questions about your existing LMS.  Does it support extended enterprise requirements?  Can you manage separate content, users, business rules and functional integrations for multiple learning audiences?  What is your LMS license model?  How will you add users, and what will that cost?  Does the platform scale efficiently with fluctuations in users and demand?

Step 2:  Identify Your Extended Enterprise Audiences

Which external audiences does your organization need to serve?  Learning programs may be appropriate for customers, prospects, business partners, distributors, agents, franchisees, dealers, contractors or others.  How large is each audience?  How would you profile their learning needs?  What is their potential to improve business performance in response to training?  How can you quantify the level of improvement?

Step 3:  Investigate Current Educational Efforts and Costs

Determine your organization’s current approach to educating each audience (tracked or untracked).  Is your company duplicating proprietary content developed for employees?  Many organizations support their extended enterprise audiences with solutions that aren’t supported by an LMS or elearning content.  There is a cost associated with this approach – often this cost is substantial from the perspective of HR or L&D.  If you know your extended enterprise audiences and the current level of spending required to educate them, you have key data to build a compelling business case.

Step 4:  Identify Metrics That Matter

For each external audience, reverse-engineer available information to determine which metrics are the best business performance indicators.  For example, do your sponsors want channel partners to sell more, sell faster or improve the quality of their service?  Do sponsors want to onboard customers faster or more successfully?  Or do they want to empower prospective customers to train themselves when considering a purchase and buy your products after a successful educational experience?  The scenarios are endless but your sponsors should know which business issues are most critical.

Step 5:  Build the Business Case and Get the Budget

Once you have useful data, it’s essential to crunch the numbers and develop a compelling analysis.  Compare the costs/benefits of your company’s current educational programs with the costs of expanding your employee LMS to support external education.  Where and how does it add value?  If your organization will make more money, operate more profitably, strengthen strategic relationships and/or benefit in other measurable ways, you should have a strong case for moving forward with a pilot program.

Conclusion

Extended enterprise learning is part business, marketing, training — and a whole lot of fun.  The trick to a successful launch is recognizing that extended enterprise learning is an ongoing journey.  Start small with a measurable business case and prove the value of every piece of content you develop.  The best organizations have this down to a science.  Their process of continuous prediction, measurement and improvement touches all facets of their program.  If you carefully consider underlying business drivers and the interests of your external learning audiences it should be easy to secure a modest budget, develop a viable proof of concept and begin to expand your reach.

Thanks for reading!



Want more insights? Watch our on-demand webinar:

How to Think Outside the Employee Learning Box

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When business decision makers think of training, they typically think of employees first. That’s one reason why so many learning platforms focus on workforce development and compliance.
But business success also depends upon the ability to educate customers, channel partners and others in your value chain.

How can you leverage learning technology to move beyond an “employees only” mentality? Take an in-depth look at this topic with John Leh, Lead Analyst and CEO at Talented Learning and Gary Underhill, Sr. Solution Architect at Expertus. You’ll learn: 

  • How to understand non-employee “external” audience learning needs
  • How to avoid the “gotchas” of multiple audiences
  • LMS functionality required to serve multiple audiences
  • Strategies for building on an existing employee-focused LMS infrastructure
  • Fundamentals of external marketing and promotion
  • How to measure success when expanding your reach

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John Leh
About John Leh (149 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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