What exactly does it mean to be a learning business? It’s a topic that permeates our work, but it’s not something we have explicitly discussed in quite some time.
Given the concept of the learning business is central to what we do while also often difficult to grasp – and because we plan to make it the unifying theme for our upcoming Learning • Technology • Design virtual conference (LTD) – we felt it the perfect time to revisit it.
In this episode, we delve into what it really means (and doesn’t mean) to be a learning business and how identifying as one can impact your mindset and increase your likelihood of success. We also share some key resources we offer to support learning businesses and learning business professionals.
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[00:18] – In this episode, we revisit a topic that permeates our work but that we haven’t discussed in a dedicated, focused way in quite some time—and that topic is the learning business.
We’ve offered a definition before, we’ve done an episode on the learning business professional, and even on the why of the learning business, but it’s been a long time since we had those conversations.
Given how central it is to the work we do and presumably the work that the majority of listeners, we feel it’s past time to revisit it. So, that’s one driver for this episode, but there are a couple of others.
First, we plan to make the concept of the learning business the unifying theme for our upcoming Learning • Technology • Design virtual conference (LTD). So, this episode is useful pre-content to share with attendees.
We’ll even be asking concurrent session presenters to talk briefly about what it means to them to be in the learning business, and we thought that would be good to ask you a similar question as a reflection question.
[01:34] – You might consider the reflection question below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- As you’re listening, we encourage you to ask yourself, “What does it mean to me to be in the learning business?”
A second reason is that we have found—and continue to find—that the concept of the learning business seems to be quite challenging for anyone outside of it—and even many inside of it—to grasp. We’ve struggled with why that is—and, while we realize we’re not going to achieve global clarity through a single podcast episode, we thought that dedicating some time to spotlighting “the learning business” as a concept and having some discussion around it might move us forward at least a bit.
What We Mean – and Don’t Mean – by “Learning Business”
[02:20] – So maybe we should start with revisiting what we mean when we use the term “learning business.” Or, really, maybe we should start with what we don’t mean because the phrase “learning business” can be used pretty loosely, which is a big part of the challenge we encounter when talking to people about.
There’s a tendency to interpret “learning business” as “a business that learns” – in this sense, every business should be a learning business.
Another usage is “the business of learning”—meaning creating/facilitating/learning is the work you do, it’s your job. That’s closer, but it doesn’t account for what we see as a defining aspect of the learning business, and that’s the revenue imperative.
A “learning business,” as we define it, has to meet two criteria:
- A fundamental reason for its existence is to generate revenue through selling learning and education experiences to a target audience. In most cases, this means net positive revenue or profit.
Perhaps another way to articulate that, in case this helps make it any clearer to some listeners is that:
- You own or work for a business that produces learning experiences.
- Your goal is to make money from selling those learning experiences.
That’s really the key part of the definition, but the second part is:
- The majority of the people working in the business recognize that revenue generation is a fundamental reason for the business’s existence. That is, they are conscious of and focused on that goal as part of the organization’s identity and part of their own identity.
We feel this second aspect of the definition is really important because it distinguishes learning businesses not just by their activities but also by their mindset.
We want to come back to that in a minute, but before that we should probably say a bit about the specific types of learning businesses we focus on.
As most listeners probably realize at this point, we’re focused specifically on adult lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development, and so, by extension, on the types of businesses that serve those learners.
That includes organizations like trade and professional associations—a big part of our audience historically.
It also includes academic continuing education programs—not so much traditional degree programs but rather programs geared towards adults who are typically already out in the working world and need to build on previous education or acquire new knowledge and skills.
Finally, it can include various types of training and education businesses, from solo edupreneurs to larger training firms, whether for-profit or nonprofit.
But the key connection among all of these types of learning businesses is that they serve adult lifelong learners.
So those are the types of organizations we consider to be learning business, and specifically we consider them to be learning businesses that serve the market for adult lifelong learning.
The Importance of Identifying as a Learning Business
[06:10] – And that word “market” is what leads us back to the idea of mindset that we mentioned earlier. Our experience is that when you really understand the concept of learning business and identify as a learning business, it alters your mindset, your perception of the goals of your work and the skills, knowledge, and behaviors needed to achieve those goals.
The revenue imperative—the fact you’re serving a market, people who can choose to pay for your learning experiences or not—means that you have not to only focus on learning strategy but also on business strategy. You have to think about things like:
- How are you going to reach and engage an audience that is not “captive” in the sense that a corporate workforce or an academic student body is?
- How are you going to differentiate from the other businesses that may be targeting the same audience you are trying to reach?
- How are you going to show results that will keep your learners—and their employers—coming back to you as customers?
- How are you going to operate in a financially sustainable way—a way that will produce net revenue that can be invested back into growing and improving the business?
We won’t say these factors are absent from situations where there is not a revenue imperative but they rarely receive the same level of focus in those contexts.
That may sound like an abstract point, but it really does have concrete implications. In many ways, it’s like the difference between being an amateur and going pro. You can be very serious and create a lot of value as an amateur—whether than means in a sport or maybe in a hobby that’s part of your life—but as soon as you transition to your livelihood depending upon being paid for the value you create, you inevitably start thinking more about what it really takes to perform and, of course, get paid, at that level—at least, if you aim to succeed you do.
To carry the amateur/professional analogy a bit further, you identify differently when you go pro. For example, if you play soccer every weekend, and someone asks you what you do, you wouldn’t say, “I’m a soccer player.” But if you played for the North Carolina Courage, on the other hand, you could say, “I am a soccer player.” It would be a major aspect of your identity.
Similarly, we think there is a difference between have learning-related responsibilities—say, creating online courses—as an aspect of your day-to-day work and really identifying as being in the learning business and being a learning business professional.
Now, that’s not to say that you can’t identify in multiple ways. We have many listeners, for example, who may identify as an association professional or an educator, but our view is that it is also important to identify as someone who works in the learning business as a learning business professional if you really want to excel.
Resources to Support Learning Businesses
[09:25] – When it comes to excelling, we want to mention three key resources we offer to support learning business and learning business professionals.
- Learning Business Maturity Model™: Intended as a tool to help you assess the current state of your learning business, the Maturity Model articulates the characteristics of a mature market-facing learning business or line of business, as well as the stages that typically precede full maturity.
We developed it based on the common problems and opportunities we’ve seen in our years of working with a wide range of learning businesses. The model’s framework helps you assess your organization’s capabilities and problem areas and provides a clear path so you can move from problem to opportunity to innovation.
- Informal Learning Business Curriculum: We’ve had many discussions on the Leading Learning Podcast about a range of topics related to the learning business. Over time, these have amounted to a sort of informal “curriculum” for anyone interested in expanding and deepening their knowledge about what it means to serve the market for lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development.
We’ve gathered together and categorized these episodes on a single page to make them easy to access. The categories are:
- The Learning Business and Leading Learning
- Key Trends
You can tune into these any time on your own (or read the show notes). Assuming you are not a solo operator, though, we recommend having all members of your team listen to them and discuss them over time.
- Learning • Technology • Design – LTD is designed specifically with learning businesses and the learning business professional in mind to give you a place where you can gather with other learning business professionals, hear from peers as well as experts to help you get the insights, practical tips, knowledge and skills you need to be able to grow and improve your learning business.
[13:10] – Wrap-Up
Note that we welcome your thoughts related to this and you can always comment on the bottom of the page for any episode post.
- What does it mean to you to be in the learning business?
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[15:14] – Sign off