January 2014

Opinon Piece: Why Define an L&D Marketing Strategy?

The world of skills development has undergone some major changes over the past ten years, mainly due to the increasingly widespread use of NICT1. From e-learning to learning communities, new approaches have continued to develop and diversify…

… In parallel, the economic climate has given rise to new constraints, namely significant reductions in staff and budgets for L&D (summed up by the catchphrase More with Less2) and the need to demonstrate the ROI of training initiatives. Studies3 show that more than 90% of managers expect L&D teams to measure the impact of training on their business… and that barely 10% of those teams are actually able to provide such data.

These demands alone prompt us to make new choices in terms of the way we offer and position L&D in companies; in addition, two well-entrenched trends are transforming the world of training.

Changes in supply and demand patterns

Two profound structural changes are taking place in the world of Learning:

  • The first concerns supply, with limited choice giving way to abundance as regards information and training
  • The second concerns demand, and is reflected in the emergence of new expectations and new learning behaviour

From limited choice to abundance

For a number of years, managers have been expressing their firm belief that human capital is one of the strategic assets of a company. Despite these fine words, however, investment in training remains, in the opinion of HR professionals, woefully inadequate to support companies through the changes they have to deal with.

The staff members themselves have adapted to this more or less organized deficiency, finding alternative and informal channels for obtaining information and developing their skills using internal networks or sponsorship. Members of Generation Y tell us that it is harder to find responses in the structured training offered by their employers than on the Web or from co-workers.

This ability to develop skills outside of classic training formats has been described in the 70:20:10 model, which shows that 70% of development takes place thanks to experience in the field, 20% through interactions with others, and only 10% via formal training. This theory echoes the work of Eric Kandel, professor at Columbia University and winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2000, who defines learning as ’the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories’. It is hardly surprising, then, that Informal Learning should be one of the major new trends in L&D.

In parallel, the growing use of new technologies, particularly e-learning, represents a major new departure that allows us to reconcile multi-learner training with content quality, at the same time improving agility and cost-effectiveness.

From selection to seduction

So, from a world of scarcity we have entered a world of abundance – sometimes even overabundance. In these conditions, monopolies or captive customers no longer exist, and we have to treat staff members as clients who must be lured, recruited and made loyal. This means that the relationship between L&D professionals and their targets must change from one of selection to one of seduction. It also means that marketing becomes a strategic discipline for them.

It has been shown that staff are bombarded with so much information every day that they have to make constant choices based on operational and personal criteria (500 messages of which 50 are noticed and 10 properly memorised).

Profound changes in demand

In parallel with changes on the supply side, behaviours and expectations have also radically changed.
In a rapidly and profoundly changing environment, to fail to develop is to take the risk of moving backwards in the fairly short term. In certain technical fields, skills can become obsolete in just a few months, whereas until recently initial training, with a few minor adjustments, could carry you through your entire career.

This means – or should mean – that staff members are carefully managing their own skills portfolios. The company no longer guarantees our employment, so let’s manage our employability! People are no longer satisfied with the two or three training days offered to them each year. They are, quite rightly, eager to develop their skills on an ongoing basis.

Consumerist behaviour patterns

On the other hand, the pressure of work is such that there is precious little time left for training. The staff member has four key expectations:

  • As the company has been asking him for years to take active charge of his own development, the staff member now wishes to be involved in the definition and design of his development plan. By making people the agents of their own development, we effectively make them into discerning ’consumers’ of our training offers.
  • People quite rightly think they cannot afford to waste time, so they ask L&D for a promise of results that will not only contribute to corporate performance but also enable them to add to their skills portfolios. Managers are no longer the only ones to insist on ROI where training is concerned.
  • Staff members base their judgment not only on results but also on the means used to achieve those results, namely quality of training, which they measure against the yardstick of their own past and present experience. The fact that they are applying these new criteria means that training must now be interactive, visually attractive, fun, flexible, simple, mobile, motivating, etc.
  • Last but not least, people expect personalised solutions. No more three-day seminars on finance fundamentals where all people needed were a few operational pointers to put together their budgets! Team members now expect you to factor in their level of skill, their individual needs, their expectations, the constraints they work under, their ambitions, and their learning profile (Kolb). ’Just-in-case’ is giving way to ’just-in-time’, and mass marketing is being replaced by individualisation.

These consumerist behaviour patterns are prompting companies to analyse and segment their target populations much more subtly. Once again, marketing comes to the rescue to ensure that training is as effective as possible and to make it into both a source of satisfaction and a way of attracting and retaining talent.

To conclude…

Radical changes have taken place among both the providers and consumers of training. They are the very same changes that have led to the increasingly vital role of marketing in the world of mass consumer goods. In these conditions, it is hard to see how training professionals can do without marketing to build their strategies and ensure maximum performance.


1 NICT: New Information and Communication Technology
2 Peter M. SENGE – The Fifth Discipline – ISBN 0-385-51782-3
3 The latest is from the ROI Institute, carried out in 2009