Managed learning services: Lightening the load

The market for handing over the running of training services to a specialist was worth £120m in contracts awarded in 2006 and is growing by 10% a year.

The reasons why organisations are going down the managed learning services (MLS) road and outsourcing learning and development (L&D) provision include cost control and course quality. But the one cited most often is that it frees training and L&D managers fromthe administrative tasks allowing them to focus on strategy.

According to Rachel Kay, business development manager at Thales Training, this is the benefit that most organisations have in mind when approaching an MLS provider.”Because the implementation and design of training can still be done in partnership with HR or training staff, they don’t lose control, just the admin burden.And this really appeals,” she says.

Paul Jefferson, chief executive at KnowledgePool, says taking away the day-to-day administration that gets in the way of more value-added activities is seen a as a major benefit by most clients.”Whether it is senior people working in learning and development or more junior staff, most would like to refocus their efforts onto other things.”

Meanwhile, John Higgins, vice-president of solution strategy and innovation at Accenture Learning, saysanother primary benefit of outsourcing is the ability to drive consistent, scaleable and sustainable business results.Providers can, he says, help link training more closely with business objectives, helping to tailor training and get better results.

“Employees who complete training that is aligned with the goals of the business develop skills and capabilities that contribute to the performance of the business,” says Higgins.”MLS providers are continually refining their methods and increasing their capabilities, giving organisations the best learning experience possible.”

Some organisationsoutsource their training and learning services because of major business transformation, such as a merger or an acquisition, global expansion, or change in business strategy.

“All require enhanced employee capabilities and skills,” says Higgins.  “During these transformations many businesses realise it is challenging to ‘go it alone’.

“Outsourcing L&D enables executives to focus on the business transformation at hand, rather than the many actions required to meet the impending need for employee capability development,” Higgins says.

Cost is, of course, another big driver for firms looking to outsource and MLS providers are quick to point out the benefits.Kay says: “One of the big savings is due to improved vendor management. By increasing buying power you get better value, so the budget goes further.”

Hidden savings

Indirect savings can also be reaped because of reduced admin.Jefferson says this includes simple things such as consolidating invoices. “This means you just have to deal with one invoice rather than one for every single course you send staff on,” he says.

But when choosing a provider it’s important not to be swayed on price alone. Higgins says the provider should be able to demonstrate its ability to drive business results through learning. He also cites flexibility, industry knowledge, client track record, innovation and cultural fit as important factors to consider.

“It is vital for both parties to ensure that there is a fit in terms of culture and ethos.Speed of transition and the ability to scale operations are also important considerations,” he adds.

Virtually all elements of training and learning can be outsourced. From business alignment, curricula planning, content development and delivery, to learning administration andmeasurement of learning impact. Most providers offer tailored solutions to let yououtsource as little or as much as you want.

Before approaching providers, however, be clear on your objectives so you can ask them how they plan to meet them.And developing a partnership is vital, so you should be ready to share information.

To achieve these objectives, you will also need to agree clear service levels, known in the MLS trade as service level agreements (SLAs).

Kay says: “Like any other outsourced activity, SLAs are important. They should provide agreement on standards and responsibilities, as well as providing clear guidelines on how performance will be measured.The contract must be very clear at the beginning.”

Responsibilities

When agreeing the responsibilities of both the provider and the business, you need to decide who in the organisation will act as a point of contact to manage the relationship,” says Jefferson.

“This needn’t be a full-time role.We work with some clients who have a small dedicated team acting as an interface with us, but others use individual delegates or their managers as that interface, who choose training courses through a catalogue.Neither of these ways should be time consuming.If your staff are spending a lot of time managing the relationship, you are not getting added value.”

You also need to consider whether you want to go with a company that provides all its own training or one that uses other external providers.

Providers that use their ownresources may say they can achieve better cost efficiency by keeping everything in-house.However independent providers claim they can give you more choice and therefore tailor solutions better.

“Being vendor-independent means you truly sit on the client’s side of the fence to ensure each learning intervention is right for them.If not, there is a risk of conflict of interest,” says Jefferson.

He adds that SLAs typically last three years, so they must be flexible to take into account an organisation’s changing requirements. “There should also be get-out clauses, setting out clear notice terms from the beginning.”

Measuring how successful training interventions are is critical when deciding to renew contracts in the future, so ensure that the provider plans to give you robust feedback on their performance.

Higgins says it’s important to ensure a range of techniques are used to measure success.”Many organisations measure the success of their training programmes by analysing trainee satisfaction ratings. It’s quite possible for trainees to love a training programme that does not improve their job performance. Therefore, it’s vital to measure how learning relatesbusiness results.”

Getting feedback on specific interventions or courses will also help both you and the provider make decisions on which to ditch and which to keep.

Outsourcing training and learning to an MLS specialist can reap rewards, and providers are keen to stress that all businesses, no matter how small, can see a good return on investment.

Like any agreement, if you are clear on objectives and responsibilities, ensure you can measure success and give the small print a thorough read, you’ll have the best chance of reaping rewards.

Case study: the Competition Commission

The Competition Commission appointed KnowledgePool to manage its entire training activity, including undertaking training needs analyses and running development centres for its professional, administrative and support staff.

This included providing a web-based training administration system to enable staff to search a catalogue of soft skills and IT training courses and to book them directly from their desktop. In addition, KnowledgePool designed and delivered an accredited management development programme and on-demand training in specific areas.

“We can now offer a range of classroom-style courses, e-learning and project-based interventions that are more aligned to our needs as an organisation,” says Katie Stone, head of HR at the commission.

KnowledgePool’s system automatically manages all of the booking details, including the joining and confirmation instructions. It includes an electronic authorisation process, to enable staff to obtain online clearance to attend their chosen course.

After the training, delegates complete an online ‘Kirkpatrick level-three’ evaluation, measuring their behavioural change as a result of the learning and their rating of the course and the provider. The results of these evaluations, together with all details of course expenditure and attendance, are fed back in management information reports designed in consultation with managers to meet their specific needs.

“KnowledgePool’s system gives our line managers and our operations board much better and more appropriate information about training than ever before. We also want to attract and retain the right people – this approach fits in with that aim,” says Stone.

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