When challenged to produce content for a new learning program, where do you turn first? To your go-to content developer, a company or in-house specialist who creates custom content tailored especially for your company? To a content provider that has ready-made, off-the-shelf solutions that are easily tweaked to meet your needs? Or to some combination of those two options?
With so many choices today, Learning and Development (L&D) professionals are able to find just the right fit for their learners and budgets. Training got insights from seven Training Top 125 companies, along with two content vendors, to help you make this crucial decision.
A Better Blend
Content creation doesn’t need to be an either/or decision. Some companies, such as Training Top 125er ADP, find that a blended approach works best, “leveraging the value of both off-the-shelf and custom learnings based on how they pertain to the learning need, the targeted audience, and the organizational characteristics at the time,” say ADP Senior Director of Learning Operations, Enterprise Learning Alwyn Klein and Director of Learning Support, Enterprise Learning Karen Bonn. “For example, we consider factors such as the extent to which we have a framework already in place, the specialty of certain content, and the timeliness of a need.” ADP is careful to choose courses its global workforce can easily use. “A typical off-the-shelf purchase likely would be content that is readily available in multiple languages, fairly generic, easily scalable, and of good quality. A good example is learning around interpersonal communication skills or learning that is general in scope and verifiably legally compliant,” Klein and Bonn explain.
As versatile and practical as modified off-the-shelf content can be, there are times when custom content makes more sense. “When deciding to roll out a Performance Consulting course, we chose to design a custom program in-house. Creating the content ourselves allowed us to immediately incorporate ADP language, leverage and adapt existing processes, and generate ADP-specific examples and case studies directly relevant to the audience,” they point out. “These capabilities—along with having an in-house subject matter expert helping to craft the content—meant we could design a course that was immediately relatable for the audience.”
ADP takes a systematic approach to deciding whether custom or curated content would be best, say Klein and Bonn. “When deciding how to source or develop learning content, we focus on several key criteria:
The Learning Need
- We consider the extent to which the organization has a specific model or framework already in place, or an adapted program to build upon.
- We also take into account the availability, newness, and quality when evaluating off-the-shelf content.
The Organizational Characteristics
- We weigh the cost of off-the-shelf content against the opportunity and the cost of internal design and available resources.
- We look at the content’s level of specialty—do we have the internal expertise to design the content ourselves? Is the content specific to ADP? De we have a specific model in mind? This is particularly important for us, because much of our content is specific to our products. As such, that content is all developed in-house.
- We consider the urgency and timeliness of the need— how quickly do we need the training available? What’s the projected lifespan of the content—how quickly will it become dated?
- We look at the size and demographics of the audience —geographic dispersion, language profile, level, access to technology, and so on.
- We carefully consider the compliance and regulatory nature of the content at hand.”
Some organizations have the capacity to create custom content in-house, ensuring the content is precisely what the course developers have in mind and what the learners need. That’s the case at Training Top 125er Leading Real Estate Companies of the World (LeadingRE), says Executive Director of Institute Content Services Cecelia Chott. “The majority of our content is custom. In the last few years, we’ve chosen to create the bulk of our content for our Institute in-house. We are blessed to have a talented videography team and studio at our headquarters office in Chicago. We bring subject matter experts into our studio to shoot videos and work together to edit final professional videos to utilize in our courses,” Chott says.
The company gets feedback from many sources to facilitate content creation. “We choose topics for development by gathering feedback from numerous sources/stakeholders: current students via individual course and annual surveys, staff, C-suite executives, board of directors, faculty, and industry subject matter experts. We manage a pipeline to deliver a calendar year of content and release new courses each month, so it takes a lot of coordination with all of the contributors,” Chott explains.
The custom approach has been especially effective for developing courses that support employee certifications. “Certifications are always our most popular courses. We created a relocation specialist designation that comprises 11 courses, which we worked with a third-party vendor to script and produce video for,” says Chott. “Having worked in relocation for years prior to moving into talent development, and working with LeadingRE relocation professionals to develop live training content previously, I was able to serve as the subject matter expert, which simplified the process. We were involved throughout production, including the video shoot with a professional speaker to ensure optimum results. This certification is our most popular course in the history of our platform.”
Customizing content means having the ability to make the content be as easy for users to access as possible. At Training Top 125er Alliance Residential Company, there are plans to break custom content into easily consumable parts, says Senior Director of Learning and Development Topher Olsen. “We create about 95 percent of our content,” he notes. “We are moving away from the longer, drawn-out SCORM courses to creating a variety of shorter courses/tip sheets/videos to explore a topic. We create these shorter pieces, and then put them into categories of Learn, Reflect, and Do. The Learn piece might have a policy to read, a video or two to watch, and a tip sheet that might recap the process. In the Reflect section, we might ask a discussion question, where we ask the participants to reflect on the learning they received and apply it to a real-life scenario. Finally, the Do portion is where the associate puts the new knowledge into action.”
Custom content also gives a company the opportunity to weave its unique corporate culture into the curriculum. “This year, we rolled out our new Learning Experience Platform (LXP),” Olsen says. “Prior to the launch, we created some tip sheets and ‘how to’ videos (short, Camtasia screen captures that walk associates through the various locations in the platform) to help them understand the ‘how’ of the new system. But to answer the ‘why,’ we created a scripted video (complete with lighting and props) with myself and our senior vice president of Performance that was filmed by our in-house videographer.”
Most of all, Olsen says custom content ensures content that will appeal to learners. “The way we are approaching content makes me think all content should be custom. Our consumers (our associates) do not want to watch long, boring training sessions anymore,” he says. “They want to engage with content the way they engage with other things they want to learn in real life, in short YouTube-style videos or Google-style articles with search capabilities that match.”
Custom-Designed to Meet Specialized Needs
Yet another advantage of custom content is it works well for companies with highly specialized needs. For Training Top 125er Buckman, for example, which estimates that as much as 80 percent of its learning content is custom created, most content outside of compliance courses is custom made. “One reason we have so little off-the-shelf content is because our needs are so specialized,” says Trainer, Instructional Designer, and Organizational Development Practitioner Lauren Warren. When conversing with vendors, Warren says, the first questions are:
1. Do you offer your material in these five languages?
2. Can we own the content and add our own culture and regulations to the material?
“Very few resources allow this flexibility at an affordable price,” she notes.
Custom courses created in-house at Buckman include classes “on sales acceleration; sales foundations; leadership; 15 technical training courses spanning water and paper industry totaling 40 days’ worth of instructor-led training (ILT) content; and our entire global Safety and Compliance library, totaling 40 courses,” Warren says. The company carefully thinks through the approach to take with each course in the level of necessary customization. “As resources become more limited, we balance the decision of: ‘Is this good enough?’ These are the days of ‘But this course doesn’t specifically mention how this relates to our foundations’ battling with ‘This content needs to be delivered now the way it is because it would be another year until we could deliver it in-house.’”
Warren says the company keeps a spreadsheet detailing the precise needs of each course. “We have a homegrown Excel spreadsheet in which we identified our top requirements (languages, meets learning objectives, aligns to strategic initiatives, complexity to integrate into our learning management system, etc.) and rank them,” she says. “This creates a semi-data-based approach to lead us in the most value-driven direction.”
Customizing Off-the-Shelf Content
At Training Top 125er AAA Northeast, approximately 70 percent of content is custom, and developed in-house, while off-the-shelf solutions comprise the other 30 percent, says Director of Learning and Development, Human Resources Keri Borba. “The products we source from partners are more general courses such as communication skills,” she says. “With any course purchased off-the-shelf, we brand the content (as allowed by licensing) and customize scenarios and examples. We use a ‘QA’ checklist to ensure the content meets the needs of different learning styles, generations, and learning differences, as well as to ensure interactivity (e.g., every AAA course includes video examples, self-reflection, poster exercises, a case study, or a simulation).”
Deciding whether custom or curated content will work comes down to a balance between learner requirements and budgetary constraints. “For the more general skill-building courses, off-the-shelf generally will suffice, but part of the decision-making process includes the cost of the off-the-shelf product, the time and skill level it would take to design internally, and the level of customization needed for off-the-shelf,” she says.
Fortunately, learning content vendors are more able than ever before to offer easily customizable off-the-shelf solutions. BizLibrary, for example, has a careful process in place to ensure the company purchasing the content gets exactly what each course demands, says Product Marketing Specialist Katie Koloj. “To ensure our off-the-shelf content is optimized to suit learners’ needs, we have a thorough curation and release process. Most content produced by BizLibrary comes with a quiz and optional reinforcement boosters to ensure the material is being retained. New BizLibrary content is updated monthly, offering 100-plus new courses each month,” Koloj explains. “Additionally, older content that is deemed to be outdated, receiving poor ratings from learners, low production quality, and/or declining in utilization is retired on a monthly basis. This ensures our content offering stays relevant to the workforce. Any existing content that has been updated is swapped out proactively. Administrators receive an e-mail notification 90 days prior to the content being removed from the library, and administrators also can see what content is retiring soon through flags in the learning management system (LMS).”
Some vendors offer a strategically formulated algorithm to make sure companies always come away with off-the-shelf content that works especially for them. Skillsoft, for example, focuses on providing the greatest value for the learner, says Chief Content Officer Mark Onisk. “For each product, we have an established rubric grounded in adult learning theory and measure each product’s alignment to this rubric. We also collaborate with leading academic and research institutions, such as MIT, to conduct extensive neuroscience studies to ensure our products effectively stimulate brain activity as measured through EEG scans,” he says. “We conduct extensive A/B studies with hundreds of learners to establish the appropriate design aesthetic and visuals. We also conduct multi-week diary studies with our products to surface the pros and cons of our product design based on real-time feedback from learners. Finally, on a weekly basis, we survey our learners directly and gather net promoter scores, star ratings, and other measures on a per-course basis. We immediately review that feedback within 24 hours of receipt, consolidate the comments from the detractors, and immediately update the courses where appropriate.”
Training Top 125er Exchange Bank carefully reviews off-the-shelf content to make sure it meets all of the bank’s standards. Most of the learning content is custom-created, so when off-the-shelf content is used, there is a need for caution, says Vice President, Head of Learning and Development Dawn Warner. “After a content review, but before purchasing instructor-led off-the-shelf content, we have someone from Learning and Development and a stakeholder participate in the event to assess the culture fit, and identify opportunities to ensure learning successfully transfers to on the job. In the cases where this has not been possible due to the extended length of the event, we run a pilot and have a few learners attend. We obtain feedback and evaluation from the learners mid-course, and relay the evaluation report to our vendor, so it has the opportunity for immediate adjustment. At the end, the learners and their supervisors report on learning effectiveness and identify opportunities for how we can ensure learning transfer on the job.”
For example, the bank purchased an off-the-shelf Ken Blanchard Management Essentials program that is facilitated internally. The Learning team then created a pre-evaluation skills assessment for participant and manager completion; after the event, the company held its own custom refresher roundtable discussions on skill topics with participants once a month for four months. “At the end of the four months, we send out a post-evaluation skills assessment the participant and manager complete and discuss. Learning and Development then tracks the results,” says Warner.
Compliance topics are especially well suited for off-the-shelf treatment. At Training Top 125er Emser Tile, off-the-shelf solutions help deliver a dependable message on compliance, says Director of Training Eddie Loussararian, who is the author of “When Bosses Go Wild: Preventing Employee Morale Knockouts.” “Certain compliance training, such as harassment training, is required by law every two years,” he says. “We use off-the-shelf videos to ensure the message is consistent and that we get 100 percent of our employee base trained. For all other non-compliance videos, we stress the importance of personal development and follow up regularly to ensure the video library is optimized.”
- Blend for best results. Some topics such as compliance work well with an off-the-shelf solution, while other topics, such as those specific to your company, can benefit from custom development.
- Create a structured process for evaluating content. Have a list of key questions to ask to determine whether an off-the-shelf or custom solution would be best.
- Get ample feedback in course development. Have both executives and learners themselves give you input on course content development.
- Custom development can enable you to structure courses in formats that are best for your learners, including breaking an unwieldy topic down into manageable parts.
- Brand off-the-shelf content especially for your company, and ensure all content matches not just your learning objectives but also your corporate culture.
- Ask content vendors how they vet and review content, and ensure it is right for your company.