The learning outsourcing market is exploding at such a fast pace, it might be more a question of “when,” not “if,” your organization will be outsourcing some aspect of the learning function. Whether you are already there, or you are new to the idea, you have a big advantage over the earliest adopters: the ability to learn from the experiences of organizations that have gone before you.
What’s different? Stated simply, learning outsourcing works better today than it did five years ago, and one of the best ways to learn is from the lessons of others. These lessons are coming from both buyers and sellers.
Today’s buyer is more sophisticated about separating strategy from process. Buyers recognize even when you outsource the entire learning function, the responsibility for learning remains with the chief learning officer. They also are more adept at structuring deals that support a program’s evolving scope over several years. Suppliers have come to understand outsourcing is a business deal. In addition, the basis of all good business deals is the relationship, or more accurately stated, the partnership. Suppliers also are increasing their value proposition by becoming better at developing the competencies required by buyers.
Despite these advances, there is no single solution set or best model to make learning outsourcing a cakewalk. You can, however, learn from proven models developed through a combination of research and many years of experience by buyers of learning outsourcing.
The Process Framework
The Process Framework (Figure 1), developed by TrainingOutsourcing.com, helps people understand the makeup of the learning organization and standardize and manage the discrete processes of the training function. It defines and integrates 22 business processes within four functional process categories: administration, content, delivery and technology.
“Two factors led us to develop the framework,” said Doug Harward, Training Industry Inc. CEO and founder of TrainingOutsourcing.com. “One, the growth in learning outsourcing was creating a whole new set of terms that were often misunderstood or misused. We realized the industry needed some standardization of terminology associated with training outsourcing if buyers and suppliers were going to work together effectively.
“Our research shows that all learning organizations perform each of these functional processes at some level of sophistication, regardless of the nomenclature they use. The outcome is a framework that reflects both standardized terminology and processes.”
The process framework supports the position that training outsourcing is not an all-or-nothing proposition. In essence, the strategic nature of learning — what, when, where, why and how — should remain within the CLO’s domain, and the process aspects can be outsourced.
How do you know what processes to outsource? Where will your organization derive the most value when you selectively hand off these tasks to an outsource provider? How do you know which business processes are critical, or do they vary to one degree or another?
The only way is to identify what processes are involved, and how they must be integrated to efficiently manage your learning organization. The key is to understand the multiple components of a business process and the possible interdependencies with processes outside the learning organization. For instance, you might outsource content development, but what about job aids and refreshers? Who creates them, and how will they be updated? How will you know a performance support solution will run smoothly on your platform and not create issues for administration? What about links with knowledge assets — how will the links be made and kept current?
Only by mapping your organization’s business processes and interdependencies and then defining clear-cut standards, roles and responsibilities can you answer these questions and develop the right outsourcing approach.
The Strategic Framework
The Strategic Learning Framework (Figure 2) starts at the beginning: identifying the business issues, assessing the capabilities of the workforce and only then designing the learning outsourcing intervention that addresses the business need. Best practice companies always make business alignment a first, second and final tenet when considering full or partial outsourcing programs.
“While this framework takes a strategic focus, well-defined processes underlie every aspect,” said Bob Blondin, ACS Global Learning vice president of learning strategy and advisory services. “These embedded processes allow the CLO to effectively define the business and performance needs and to carry them through the development, implementation, measurement and improvement cycles.
“It helps CLOs define discrete performance goals in alignment with business drivers. It also helps them retain ownership of learning’s strategic elements, regardless of whether a business process or the entire function is outsourced.”
The strategic framework begins and ends with a process for identifying, assessing and aligning the desired business performance. At the front end, the CLO asks the organization not only to articulate business outcomes but also to suggest the performance improvements needed to achieve these outcomes. The strategic model also emphasizes the need to develop a framework for how the learning organization will measure success from a business perspective.
It helps CLOs address the tight alignment of content, competencies, delivery modes and experiential activities connected to performance goals and indicators essential to meeting targeted business outcomes. It also is used to identify specific measurements for success with predictive methods for tracking performance.
Supplier Capabilities Framework
At this point, you have a learning organization process map, a clear understanding of the initiative’s underlying business drivers, the performance needs and the required improvements. You also have identified the best processes to outsource. But how do you select a service provider that will align well with your objectives and relationship needs?
The Supplier Capabilities Framework, developed by Training Industry Inc., facilitates the decision process by defining 13 critical capability areas that are included in the majority of most outsourcing contracts. Its research confirms these discrete areas reflect what those buyers need and value the most. It is helpful to buyers that most supply-side providers market their services along these same lines.
The question becomes whether to select a full-service provider with extensive expertise across all capabilities or a niche provider who has expertise in one or two selected areas. This framework helps define your criteria for each capability relevant to your outsourcing initiative, then it assists you in assessing each capability’s weighted importance. The total score should reveal suppliers with the highest-possible strengths for your needs.
Mapping the strategic and process requirements is only part of the evaluation. Other considerations include:
Resolving Potential Issues Before They Start
There are three “capabilities” areas that buyers rate as problematic when asked to describe their outsourcing relationships. These are diagnostics, strategy integration and administrative services. Exploring any or all of these areas with a potential supplier can serve as a perfect litmus test to determine whether a supplier is the right fit for your learning outsourcing needs.
Diagnostics. This is the start of every outsourcing partnership. The initial strategy analysis and business alignment is mission-critical for a successful outcome. Get it right, and all other bumps can be managed. Get it wrong, and it can cost a great deal to fix. The term “partnership” is not used lightly, as a partnering culture is required if the supplier and buyer are going to work as an integrated team. A critical capability is the provider’s experience working with integrated teams to confirm the business issues, strategy, objectives and design of the learning solution.
Begin with a current state learning audit and a future state assessment of the client, followed by the preparation of a detailed business plan. You will want to meet key personnel, strategists, consultants and solutions architects who are charged with mapping the engagement relative to your organizational capabilities. Review execution maps that show how the supplier takes projects from inception to completion. Give special attention to how ongoing evaluation and oversight are handled. Do not forget to validate the processes, tools and templates that help the integrated team work efficiently and effectively.
Strategy Integration. This is the area where the rubber meets the road, and it’s often a big differentiator between potential suppliers. Learning “alignment” or strategy integration must be practical, achievable and easily communicated to stakeholders. Whether it is operational efficiency, market growth, retention or other leading strategic indicators, identification of purpose from the onset — and validating that purpose with key business leaders — is a constant in best practice programs. Accordingly, you must seek partners who have extensive expertise in the development of learning systems (a collection of content and technology platform components and activities, as well as other actions that are necessary to achieve desired outcomes) in context to the specific business outcomes you desire.
Preferably, your partner should have an understanding and expertise with your industry and specific business issues. Whether this calls for the creation and integration of learning maps or competency frameworks to address performance gaps related to managing talent, tracking and managing workforce compliance across a global enterprise or developing measurement strategies that assess learning effectiveness, your supplier must not only understand your objectives but also help you choose the correct interventions in which to gain the outcomes relevant to your business. Ask for customer testimonials and references. Any entity or expert engaged in this learning integration with clients will be more than happy to tell you about it.
Administrative Services. While this capability might be the least sexy, it is a critical one. Poor quality, inconsistent delivery and lack of controls can undermine the entire project and destroy the partnership. The first capability to address is governance. Ask the supplier to share its relationship management methodology for how it plans, manages and concludes the work. Look for Six Sigma and Performance Management Institute (PMI) standards, as well as how the supplier has embedded quality assurance and measurement that ensure the supplier and customer teams are aligned throughout the process.
Review how the supplier will support all phases of the project. For example, is there a project charter and work plan? What do the measure and process reports look like? How will risk and issues management be handled? How will performance metrics be defined and reported? What is the process for project review and performance reviews? Assess other attributes that will increase the supplier’s capabilities score, including:
Experienced outsourcers confirm there is no substitute for identifying and validating the business purpose for outsourcing learning at the outset with key business leaders. In fact, this is a constant in best practice programs that meet the “strategic alignment” criteria, whether the outsourcing decision is based on operational efficiency, market growth, retention or other leading strategic indicators.
These same outsourcers will tell you mapping the learning organization’s processes is a prerequisite for success. Two advantages of mapping all the processes, including interdependencies, before tackling the business strategy is that you will be more efficient and effective when developing solutions to the strategic questions, and you will vastly improve your ability to negotiate and manage the outsourced relationship.
Finally, selecting the right supplier for your needs often can close any gaps you might have in your process and strategic framework analyses.
Mark Pramuk, Everest Group vice president, suggested in a recent forecast by HRO Today magazine that today’s buyer has a far greater clarity in the desired role for the retained “outsourcer” organization and the path by which that role will be realized. This assessment suggests successful buyers of learning outsourcing are getting much better at applying the critical frameworks before making decisions.
Richard Klingshirn is the executive managing director of ACS Global Learning and is responsible for leading the learning business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.