The five biggest challenges to customized corporate training
By Carol Howard, Brandman University School of Extended Education director
There are over 3000 four-year universities in the U.S., many providing some type of professional development or corporate training. That’s a good thing. But in today’s world of customized shopping and customized Pokémon Go experiences, a one-size-fits-most offering is no longer applicable.
To stay relevant and at the forefront of educational opportunities, universities must continually lean in to the custom option. And as unique as the individual or organization, so too are the complexities facing university leaders today.
Here are five of the biggest challenges we face.
1. Instructor Pool Dynamics
Universities typically employ full-time faculty and part-time adjuncts. When it comes to professional education, the structure often looks more like a pool of part-time instructors that are brought in to teach on an as-needed basis. That allows the flexibility to bring in an instructor with a very specific skill set to meet a very specific programming need. It also allows the instructor to truly tailor the program to the needs of the participant or client as well as play to their own facilitation strengths.
But the model is not without its difficulties. That same instructor that is so highly qualified in their specialty is often sought after by other universities, training organizations or their own consulting practice, leaving little time in their demanding schedules to accommodate the needs of an upcoming professional development program or specific client schedules. Additionally, the program being designed often crosses multiple niche areas within a specific discipline. For instance, a framework for a leadership program may include topics such as interpersonal communication, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking and conflict resolution skills. While those all fit within the context of a generalized program and could be taught by one individual with a generalized skill set, it is often the case that there are one or two instructors who are really passionate about a specific topic and have made a name for themselves teaching it. Those are the instructors you want in your program and the instructors that our clients often request. That puts the program developer and manager in the position of having to juggle a team of instructors for a program and manage their associated schedules and availability.
It’s a large challenge so you need to start early, but when you build those instructor relationships and get it right, you create a highly valued program.
Of course, those same instructors that are so highly skilled typically command a higher compensation rate, consequently increasing the overall cost or decreasing the margins on the program. Couple that with the fact that training organizations and independent consultants have more flexibility to manage their margins and you can quickly find yourself priced above the competition. This is where it is critical to manage the participant or client’s understanding and expectations.
Professional development on its face is a nebulous term. It is so wide-ranging in quality and the consumer often has few ways to fully compare products so the default comparison is often price. Educating the consumer is paramount. You need to be able to deliver the message that your program is worth the investment. That it meets the need like no other. That the service provided is not easily found elsewhere. That you can deliver experts in multiple topics.
One of the main benefits of using a highly regarded university for professional development is that we recognize these concerns, we understand quality education and we have the reach in the field to curate the best available content and instructors to deliver it. There is a plethora of organizations that can deliver training on a topic such as emotional intelligence, including online self-paced videos. There are far fewer that truly know the leaders in the field, have the ability to procure their services and the means to deliver the content specifically tailored to the needs of the learner. It is our job to convey that information so the consumer understands and feels positive about the value they are receiving.
Universities market to their primary constituency: the academic degree-seeking student. Their budget allocation for marketing does not always include professional development, and when it does, it is by far a small percentage of the overall funding. As such, getting the message out about the types of professional development programs offered is a real challenge, let alone being able to convey the message that customized services are available.
We consistently hear comments such as, “I had no idea your university did that.” That’s a large hurdle to overcome especially when other training organizations and consultants make marketing one of their primary objectives.
To combat that, universities often rely on word of mouth references but that can only go so far. Universities need to understand that the professional development services they offer need a more holistic approach, including a dedicated marketing function and targeted business development. When budgets are tight, it is necessary to leverage that development with the outreach and marketing systems that the university already has in place. That means educating and equipping those dedicated personnel with the messages they need to carry. But since they already have a targeted agenda, it may only be possible to provide them with a general framework and the understanding that you as the professional development arm are always there to answer questions, consult or attend their events. In return, you can provide them with an entrée to an audience that will hopefully create a pipeline into the university’s degree programs. It takes work, communication and trust.
As I write this, I’m on my way to a two-day symposium with our university’s outreach team. That’s two days I cannot fully attend to my programs and clients. But it’s also two days of making those connections to help the team understand how we can mutually benefit by each of our successes. That is time that money cannot buy.
4. Needs Analysis for Authentic Customization
One of the most important things we can provide in professional development is an ear to hear the needs of our learners. We do that by thoughtfully listening to clients as we move through the needs analysis process and also by researching trends and skill gaps that need to be filled. Anyone can provide information on decision-making skills or employee engagement concepts. The real value is targeting that to your audience so that the learning not only takes place but is embedded and utilized in their day-to-day work situations.
The time spent up front to truly understand the learner and their needs is time-consuming and involves questions that go further than, “Tell me what you want to learn.” It requires questions such as, “Tell me about what is happening now. Tell me what is working. Tell me what is not. Tell me what you envision as an ideal state. Tell me more.”
A true learning institution will take the time to listen to the answers to those questions to create an authentic customized professional development program that includes tailored case studies, examples and engagement worthy of the investment.
5. Workplace Application
If you have the facilitator talent, the marketing investment to get the work out and the ability to understand the real issues that need to be addressed you still have to create and deliver a program that meets the needs of the participant and client. One of the strongest components of any professional development program is workplace application. And that happens best when learners immediately take what they have heard in the class session and apply it at work.
So how does that happen?
It happens by relating what they learn to what they are experiencing. If we have a financial institution that needs their employees to grow in their understanding of customer service, we may start with their understanding of self. Through a series of iterative assessments and discussions, we provide a pathway for them to understand style differences so they can service the needs of their own clients. Threaded throughout that learning are engaging activities, examples and case studies that directly relate to their industry so they get to practice what they will be experiencing back at work. That takes the learning to a new level but it also requires the skill to understand their needs and environment and create a program around those.
This is certainly not a stagnant landscape. Master these challenges and new ones will arise. But as educators, we should welcome the expansion and the opportunity to serve a more dynamic populous in an ever-changing workforce. After all, a primary tenet of education is pragmatism: The value of knowledge is a function of its usefulness or relevance. We value learner-centered outcomes, and as learners desire to customize their world, we too must customize the product we deliver.
This article first appeared in the online newspaper EvoLLLution.
About the author
Carol Howard is a director of Custom Programs in Brandman University’s School of Extended Education.
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