Employee EngagementLearning & Development

Learning the Language of Learning

In his first column, our expert lays out the rules of the nomenclature road.
By John Higgins
I am pleased to welcome you to our new monthly column that will cover learning outsourcing. Over the coming months, it is my intent to offer you a fresh perspective on learning outsourcing. It is also my intent to provide you with insight to learning outsourcing that is based on my experience as both a buyer and a supplier in our industry.
One of the questions we frequently hear is, “What do you mean by learning outsourcing?” As I work across our industry I’ve found the very term “learning outsourcing” evokes different images, depending on whom you are discussing the topic with. For some, the term can mean full, end-to-end outsourcing of all people, processes, and technologies related to the learning and development mission of an enterprise. For others, it might mean outsourcing just a portion of a training initiative, a more task- or project-oriented arrangement.
Let’s say, for example, that you need to quickly ramp up and deploy a global sales training initiative. You might choose to source just the content development and delivery to a firm that is expert in developing selling skills. I view such an arrangement as more of an “out-tasking” sort of relationship. In addition to outsourcing and out-tasking there is yet another term you will likely encounter: learning managed services.
So there you have it! I’m just a few paragraphs into  my new column and I’m already mincing words! Is it any wonder we have confusion in our industry concerning the topic of learning outsourcing? Once you get to the heart of the labels applied to outsourcing, however, you’ll see this is indeed a case of a “rose by any other name.”
To allay future confusion that might result from this Learning Tower of Babel, let’s begin by trying to square away our nomenclature. The term learning outsourcing, for the purpose of keeping things simple, will include any element of the overall learning process that is sourced to an external supplier. Of course, that phrase, too, will require some exploration.
Regardless of the ultimate scope in a deal, you’ll see the term learning services outsourcing (LSO) used in our industry. So we’ll defer to the use of LSO in our discussions. Regardless of the ultimate scope—full end-to-end, taking on some form of a project related to learning, or the management of one of the learning processes—LSO is inclusive of any meaningful engagement that we will encounter between buyers and suppliers. Ultimately, it is less important what we call this than ensuring that the right context is applied when exploring potential supplier relationships and negotiating learning services contracts. I can’t overemphasize this: It is critically important that you are as clear and precise as possible on the scope you wish to include in your LSO arrangement with any supplier.
While you will often hear in our industry that a particular company has “outsourced their learning function,” the fact of the matter is there are fewer than a handful of examples of true and full end-to-end deals in the market. Indeed, it’s more likely you will find a blend of process ownership between buyer and supplier. It is quite common, for example, to find LSO relationships in which the buyer will retain the processes that drive learning strategy and planning—only outsourcing the more mundane, tactical tasks such as learning administration. Or you might see an LSO arrangement in which content development is outsourced to address a unique skill set.
From Label to Process
Given the broad range of outsourcing arrangements, and the communications around deals, it is easy to see how the definition around outsourcing is broadly applied. With such an application of the term, we can also begin to understand why there is confusion with the term outsourcing. In seeking to strike a balanced approach between buyer and supplier, understanding the processes involved in LSO arrangements is absolutely critical.
Think about your processes and the balance you wish to seek between buyer and supplier. If you are a buyer, understand which processes you wish to retain and own. As a supplier, know which processes you are most qualified to service. Before transferring process ownership, ensure that the processes are stable and streamlined. Clearly define the scope in your LSO arrangements. Taking these steps will significantly reduce confusion and will also enhance the success of the buyer and supplier relationship.
Let’s now briefly turn our attention to the processes involved in LSO deals.
The learning function comprises a series of core processes and sub-processes. These learning processes are managed by learning function leadership to provide learning and development services to the employees of an enterprise. With perhaps the exception of payroll and information technology, learning and development is uniquely positioned as the one business process area that conceivably touches all employees in an enterprise. Thus, there is a tremendous opportunity to favorably impact business results through the deployment of effective and efficient learning processes. An incredible opportunity exists to both create and drive business impact through learning because of its extended reach across the enterprise. Given the potential for business impact, optimizing learning results is vitally important.
Leveraging TQM
When an enterprise seeks to optimize business processes, it is useful to leverage lessons from the field of total quality management (TQM). Practitioners of TQM tell us that in order to achieve the full benefit of business processes, business processes must be measurable, predictable, and repeatable. Save this thought, as we will come back to it in future columns when we discuss service level agreements (SLAs).
Let’s get back to the basics of learning processes. As we define outsourcing for the learning function, it is useful to list precisely which processes are in the scope of our discussion. You’ll find that depending on the service provider you’re considering, there will be a slight variation in nomenclature and process description. Essentially there are six core processes within the learning function: learning strategy and planning, curriculum design, content development, delivery scheduling and management, learning administration, and learning technology deployment and support.
Examining each of the core processes leveraged in learning and development, one will find each comprises sub-processes. For each core process, as many as ten or more sub-processes can be found. That’s how learning and development organizations can quickly wind up being responsible for 60 or more business processes. It is this volume of processes that contributes to both the confusion about the scope of learning outsourcing and the complexity of the outsourcing relationship. This volume of processes also leads to some of the challenges experienced between buyers and suppliers. In the coming year, we’ll take time to explore some of those challenges.
To recap: Learning and development comprises a set of core processes. In an effort to optimize process results and business impact, enterprises seek to drive efficiency and effectiveness in process deployment and delivery. It is common to see enterprises turn toward outsourcing providers to aid in achieving highly optimized processes. While on rare occasion enterprises outsource the entire end-to-end learning and development organization, it is more common to see an enterprise outsource some subset of the core processes, retain a supplier to work on a specific learning intervention, or ask a supplier to manage some portion of the learning processes. For consistency and to reduce confusion, LSO is the term we will use when considering and discussing learning outsourcing services.
We look forward to having you join us next month for our topic “So Many Suppliers—So Little Time!” We also want to ensure this is your column, so please feel free to drop me a note indicating what you’d like to see in future columns. 
John Higgins is founder of Higgins Learning Group and was previously global senior director for Accenture HR & Learning BPO Services. He can be reached at higginslg@gmail.com.

Tags: Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Global, Learning

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