Outsourcing: Off-loading the burden

Outsourcing the supply and delivery of training has become mainstream. Yet it’s a road that should be travelled with extreme care.

Outsourcing organisational functions has been a fashionable and sometimes controversial business trend in recent times. Training and learning and development (L&D) is part of this mix, though employers are far more likely to outsource the admin side rather than their entire learning operation.

A poll last year of 40 large UK organisations conducted by learning services provider KnowledgePool found that one in three said it would consider outsourcing training administration before 2009. About 46% said they already outsourced some design and delivery of training, though that’s the norm in L&D.

Growth area

Nevertheless, while it is still comparatively rare to outsource the entire L&D function or apply some form of managed learning service, it is undoubtedly a growth area.

The same study shows that about 5% of large UK organisations already use a managed service and KnowledgePool chief executive Paul Jefferson says it is a natural extension of what many firms are already doing.

“Companies have almost always used some sort of outsourced training, whether that is freelance trainers or external courses. It’s an area that’s growing quite rapidly because organisations are expecting learning and development to add much more value to the business and become strategic in the way training links to business goals.”

A managed service – according to its fans – allows learning and development professionals to concentrate on the more strategic elements of the job by taking the administration and contract management out of the equation. There’s no hard evidence about what training and L&D managers think of this, but it’s fair to assume many would disagree with that view.

But Jefferson claims managed learning offers a better service for delegates and the business, as well as reducing the overall costs of providing training. These services should give companies better buying power in the training supply market. Jefferson also claims they bring other benefits.

“Overall, clients will get a more consistent and effective service, but I think it also brings in a more robust set of measurements for training activity.”

Strategic relationship

Typical contracts last about three years but Jefferson is at pains to point out that it shouldn’t be seen as simply paying for a service – it needs to be a strategic relationship that actually drives up business capacity.

“Companies need to work very closely with providers, but in turn they need to provide very clear business objectives. This should be reviewed and discussed all the time because requirements can change over time.

“It’s not just a case of outsourcing training and then forgetting about it. It’s about developing a relationship, retaining expertise and getting a strategy in place to support the business,” he says.

Martyn Sloman, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s training, learning and development adviser, takes a more measured view and says outsourcing is a topic that is debated in many boardrooms.

“It seems to move backwards and forwards as business cycles change over the years. Organisations tend to fluctuate between outsourcing training to external consultants, and then doing all their training in-house.”

He argues that although outsourcing may save time and money, firms must consider how much control they want over training and developing the core business skills required to operate successfully.

“Companies need to think about what’s really important to the organisation and how those skills will be delivered. For vital skills that are central to how the business delivers services to customers, I think they need to think very hard before completely outsourcing them,” he says.

Where outsourcing or managed services are the best fit, Sloman says, companies must take time to choose the right partner.

“The training partner needs to be very closely aligned with what the organisation wants to achieve and its overall business plan. Outsourcing training administration needs to be carefully managed, but can really add value for HR. Employers need to look very carefully to make sure everything in the deal is aligned with the business,” he says.

Extra distance

Adrian Snook, director of operations at the Training Foundation, says many of the learning and development problems faced by modern organisations relate to poor training effectiveness. Outsourcing can exacerbate that as it can lead to increased organisational distance between operational business units and the training provider.

“This extra distance can often act as an additional impediment to organisations that are already struggling with issues of training effectiveness,” says Snook.

“If you are primarily seeking improvements in training effectiveness, then the best course of action is more likely to be a comprehensive review and restructure of the existing learning and development function, accompanied by a planned programme of professional development for the training personnel who are retained,” he adds.

But Leigh Lovering, director of learning solutions at QA-IQ, says the concept of managed learning has come a long way in the past few years and that more businesses are starting to see the benefits. And, although cost reduction is an issue, she says it is just one of the key benefits of using a managed learning service.

These include an administration system for – if customers want it – the entire training, live online booking portals and a virtual shop window for delegates.

Best practice

Depending on terms and conditions, a managed learning service can also enable clients to access best practice from the outside training and education markets, while choosing from a huge range of courses that may normally have been out of reach.

“It gives the organisation a visibility and lets them retain control of the function. It also saves time and money by enabling the business to relocate the best resources to more valuable, strategic tasks,” says Lovering.

For the supplier – apart from the fees – the most important part of any deal is understanding the training and commercial needs of the client. For the client, it is specifying what is wanted from the deal in terms of delivery, content, support etc.

This is why service level agreements (SLAs) are so important. These are the agreements that specify deliverables, support services, back-up etc. It cannot be stressed too often that SLAs are at the heart of effective managed learning service delivery. To measure their importance look no further than the IT sector where so many outsourcing arrangements have hit the buffers because of poorly specified SLAs.

To make them effective and beneficial for the organisation, clients must work closely with suppliers to specify learning that will actually drive the company forward.

“Building this type of relationship is a very powerful process. It’s really an evolution for the business as we understand what they need and deliver improvements. We have a very consultative style but we will challenge and engage with clients to get them where they want to be,” says Lovering.

Above all, those responsible for managing the training and L&D function must be able to identify how the effectiveness of a managed learning service can be measured.

Partnership for young London

A partnership between local authorities in London, BT and one of the public sector’s biggest managed learning suppliers, has helped to develop a flexible and accessible workforce development programme.

The Ypower programme was developed by Tata Interactive Systems for Partnership for Young London and the youth services of four London boroughs: Croydon, Richmond, Tower Hamlets and Westminster.

The managed learning service delivers personalised learning for workers in areas including safeguarding, Common Assessment Framework (CAF), and health and safety.

CAF is the assessment system used by local government to help ensure they meet the legal requirements they have towards children, while safeguarding relates to statutory protection of young people.

Ypower allows managers to record individuals’ training requirements deliver against these requirements, and track the training that has already been provided.

“Ypower offers much better use of learners’ time, with essential information being delivered online, allowing classroom delivery to focus on more practical applications of learning,” says Roger King, deputy head of youth services in Croydon.

BT and Tata Interactive Systems believe that the Ypower programmes – which can be customised to each council or department – provide an accurate, up-to-date message that is easily accessible and widely available as and when required.

Tips for outsourcing success



  • Choose a provider with a track record in your sector.
  • Get quotes from different providers.
  • Appoint a project manager to keep the programme on track.
  • Keep strategic roles in-house – outsource delivery only.
  • Set milestones to review the effectiveness of the training programme.
  • Involve the internal training function from the start and see outsourcing as a partnership.

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