Volume 01: On Staff or On Demand?
Training is a dynamic discipline that is constantly evolving in response to changes in market conditions and corporate priorities. As businesses seek to produce and deliver high-value training, they must first address the question of whether to hire full-time instructional design professionals or rely on outside providers.
This white paper, the first installment of our Learning Perspectives series, addresses the advantages and disadvantages of both strategies. Many of the arguments are similar to those around outsourcing other business functions. Others are specific to the unique nature and demands of training.
The thoughts presented here are not just my own. They also reflect the perspectives of corporate learning and development leaders who have used both strategies. Their views were canvassed by TrainingPros Relationship Managers.
Quality training is essential to achieving a competitive business advantage. Getting it right is in everyone’s best interest.
Lay of the Land
A quick survey of the training landscape reveals several current influencers. Chief among them is the economy. Five years into this historic downturn, we are finally starting to see an increase in training demand, with many on-hold programs re-energized as market conditions incrementally improve.
Additional training needs are appearing in response to emerging technologies and business priorities, like the push for greater compliance and the need to develop and train key organizational talent.
Additionally, the demand is being fueled by the growth of the virtual office, new delivery platforms and a Generation Y workforce with a unique learning style and culture.
Bringing employees into a classroom for five days of face-to-face training is fast becoming an antiquated concept. Today’s learners demand highly personalized, digitized instruction literally at their fingertips. Whether that’s developed by skilled contractors, in-house specialists or a combination is the question at hand.
The right in-house Instructional Designer (ID) comes to your project ready to roll with a fundamental understanding of your business, organizational politics and workforce. There’s no onboarding or orientation to cultural sensitivities required.
What’s more, an internal provider already has clout and relationships that help earn trust and get things done. In certain organizations, contractors have to fight – and win – the “you’re-not-one-of-us” battle to earn acceptance. This time-consuming process doesn’t always succeed.
Another plus on the internal provider side is eliminating the unknown. Some outside vendors sell well on the front end but fall down on delivery. They may lack accountability and the ability to keep the client in the loop.
And then there’s “fit.” Even the most skilled and experienced consultant may not easily adapt to a particular workplace.
In the words of Leigh Anne Lankford, Relationship Manager, TrainingPros, “The best instructional designer I ever worked with was able to comprehend the entire situation quickly, ask the right questions without fear, push back when necessary and deliver the right thing on time.”
If an ID cannot fire on each of those cylinders, you probably need to reconsider your choice.
What then are the disadvantages of using an internal ID resource? In some cases, in-house IDs lack the specific expertise required. This can be problematic in today’s project-based training environment.
The ability to deliver innovative, educationally sound solutions via new platforms and delivery methods is essential. For example, many businesses are calling on instructional design specialists to migrate traditional classroom learning to mobile platforms, including smartphones and iPads.
An employee who climbed the corporate ladder who passed through a variety of functions before stepping off at the training department may bring the right content expertise and understanding of “what works here,” but may lack the required experience to create effective learning programs beyond PowerPoint-based, instructor-led training.
Similarly, an individual who wears multiple hats (ID and instructor, for example) may be stretched too thin to perform at the level required in either role.
There’s also a financial consideration. With most businesses operating leaner than ever, providing full-time employment and benefits for an ID or trainer whose services are not in constant demand may prove fiscally unwise.
Outside Consultant: Is this the best fit?
Bringing in an outside expert can energize personnel and introduce fresh thinking. “We get outside perspective on strategic issues, new ideas and new viewpoints,” said one Atlanta-area instructional design manager. “We even get input on projects other than the one they’re on.”
Another business advantage is linked to the dynamic nature of training. Fast-changing technology requires that training professionals be thoroughly immersed in the field with an insider’s knowledge of trends and best practices. Contractors are, by design, motivated to maintain this expertise.
An example is the current trend toward “blended learning,” a mix of classroom and digital instruction that helps reduce the cost of development and delivery.
There’s also a strong quality/value benefit inherent in the contractor relationship. Many top IDs go into consulting because it affords certain lifestyle benefits and flexibility they could not get in an inside position.
As a trade-off, they are willing to accept a lower rate of pay. The result is that client businesses gain access to exceptional talent at an affordable price.
For some companies, the disadvantages of hiring an external consultant may outweigh the benefits. Consultants may have limited understanding of the business and lack productive relationships at all levels of the organization.
Sometimes outside vendors lack experience with systems and applications, and some take longer than others to get up to speed.
It’s also true that with an inside provider, the host business knows what it is getting. There are no surprises – no unusual personalities or work styles that need adapting.
Calculate with Care
The on-staff vs. on-demand question is not a new one. It has been the subject of MBA seminars and C-suite discussions over the years. The difference is that the stakes are increasingly high as businesses seek every possible competitive edge, including those delivered by world-class training.
At the end of the day, training strategy is a calculated business decision. It should be made with an eye toward providing effective, high-value instruction in sync with a company’s mission and culture.
Whether you choose contract or staff talent, consider the following questions.
- Can your provider respond to an immediate training need?
- Does your training expert contribute beyond the immediate project, adding value and innovation to your organization?
- How familiar is your ID with industry best practices, including new platforms and technologies for designing, developing and delivering learning solutions?
- Do you have the time and resources to hire, manage and monitor contractors?
- Is your current provider comfortable with demographic preferences and new learning styles?
- Does your specialist deliver the best value while meeting the training needs of your organization?
 Thanks to our expert contributors:
Bob Buckler, Performance Specialist, Onboarding and Core Training, Lowe’s Companies, Inc.
Dianna Buelke, Director of Training, ACI Worldwide
Laura Comstock, Vice President, Training & Development, Wintrust Financial Corporation
Janelle Crowley, Chief Human Resources Officer, Elgin Community College
Ed Fussell, Associate Director, AT&T Learning Services
Sue Loerts, Vice President, Human Resources, ACI Worldwide
Shawn Minard, Manager, Training and Development, E*TRADE Corporate Services
Jennie Reid, Director, Enterprise Learning Solutions, ConAgra Foods
Sean Sprague, Associate Director, Training Design and Delivery, AT&T
Rob Tressler, Manager, Training Programs, Genuine Parts Company
Leigh Anne Lankford, Relationship Manager, TrainingPros
TrainingPros, Inc., founded in 1997, works closely with training and development departments of large organizations to identify, attract and support leading contract specialists for focused training and development engagements. A proprietary on-boarding process led by experienced Relationship Managers helps ensure the right personnel for the job.
TrainingPros President Steve Kapaun welcomes your feedback.