Chances are, if you’re in the learning business, you probably didn’t go to school knowing this is where your career would take you. Some of you may a have strong background on the learning or education side, while others may have it on the business side—but likely, you don’t have an equally strong background when it comes to both, and it may be difficult to combine the two.
And because we want you to have the core skills and knowledge needed to run a successful learning business, we’re focusing our newest series on the learning business MBA.
In this first installment in our seven-part series, we discuss the idea behind the learning business MBA and the related skills it requires. We also pull in perspectives from Josh Goldman—who we credit for giving us the term for the learning business MBA—and Arianne Urena and Cristyn Johnson.
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What Is the Learning Business MBA?
[00:29] – We’ll credit the term to Josh Goldman, who now serves as the director of consulting at Tagoras, the parent company of Leading Learning, which we co-founded. He was not part of the team here when he first used the term. He was at a CPA society then, and he reached out to us because he was in charge of putting together programming for a gathering of the educators from the CPA world.
The idea of an MBA (a master’s in business administration) emerged and having that be a theme for a day of education. Of course, we weren’t going to accomplish a true MBA in a day, but the idea was that we could focus on the business side of providing lifelong learning and continuing education in a one-day session with these educators. We had a chance to talk with Josh much more recently than that initial conversation about this idea of an MBA for learning leaders.
[03:27] – Josh shares what he remembers about the original of the learning business MBA.
As I looked across the landscape, I realized that the market was changing. There were a lot of competitive forces at play, and I needed a skill set that I hadn’t earned either formally through formal training and education or informally via on-the-job learning…. As I advanced in my career and worked with different audiences and in increasingly complex associations, I recognized I personally was lacking some of the explicit knowledge, skills that you would find inside of a traditional MBA program…. And so the market was changing needs, and I felt at that time that that collective audience—all of those learning leaders across a number of CPA associations and myself—could use something like a learning MBA that helped us focus on some of those more business-focused or corporate-focused knowledge and skill sets.Josh Goldman
Josh speaks based on his personal background working in associations, but we don’t think what he’s describing is unique to people working in the association world. People who wind up in the learning business probably do so accidentally more often than not. Even if you come to a commercial training firm that might be focused on the adult lifelong learning market, chances are you didn’t go to school thinking that’s where you were going to end up. So you may be lacking some of those skills. Also, it can feel a little bit distasteful to some to combine learning and education with business.
Perhaps there is some tension inherent in how we describe our audience. We talk about learning businesses. Learning is an innate impetus—all humans learn—and so it seems learning should be wide open, freely available. Business, on the other hand, is about competition and profit and charging for access. So it can feel distasteful for people who really buy into the learning mission of a learning business to think of it as a business.
Some people who end up in a learning business come a learning or education background. Others (probably fewer) land in a learning business with business skills and acumen, and they might be unfamiliar with the learning side of things and feel at a loss when it comes to understanding what goes into making an effective learning experience, which, of course, is what a learning business provides.
[06:45] – Back to the question, “What is the learning business MBA?”
The learning business MBA is shorthand for getting at the core skills and knowledge needed to run a successful learning business. Just as the traditional master’s of business administration focuses on key areas that are important for the successful operations of a business, the learning business MBA does the same thing. It identifies the core skills and knowledge in specific areas that are necessary for one particular type of business, for a learning business, and what it takes for that to be successful. The main difference is that the learning business MBA focuses on learning businesses that serve learners and help them learn, and so learning is so important to their profitability.
One of the things we’ll aim to do over the course of this series is to enumerate some of those skills and knowledge areas required for running a successful learning business, dig into them a bit, and have conversations with people who can help to illuminate them in the context of a learning business.
Another model is something like the altMBA that Seth Godin introduced a number of years ago. The altMBA and executive MBAs play off the idea of the full-blown MBA and focus on offering content to people who are already in the work world and are going to be able to put what they learn to work in the context of their day-to-day jobs. While obviously this podcast series is not going to be any sort of true MBA, we hope to MBA-type skills, knowledge, insights, and conversations with people from a business perspective that you will be able to put to work in your learning business.
What Would the Course of Study Cover in the Learning Business MBA?
[09:38] – Let’s talk about what would we study in the learning business MBA. What are the skills and knowledge learning businesses need to be successful? It’s going to vary from program to program, but there are some core areas you find in most MBA programs—things like accounting, finance, strategy, management, marketing, and communications. These aren’t unique to learning businesses, but they are definitely important to learning businesses.
When talking about skills he wanted and felt lacking in years ago, Josh mentioned product development, pricing, market assessment, and risk assessment. Those are arguably more specific domains—subdomains you could call them, under some of those broader categories.
There are some domains that are unique to learning businesses, the main one being an understanding of how adults learn efficiently and effectively.
An understanding of how learning happens is, of course, key to developing and delivering products that are going to help a learning business in its arguably most fundamental goal.Celisa Steele
The business elements are really built all around developing and delivering effective, efficient learning products and services. Fortunately, we’ve got good resources to help you understand how learning happens. We just completed a great series on learning science for learning businesses, which we recommend particularly if your background is more in business than in learning. Depending on your role in a learning business, you’re going to go deeper or shallower in some areas.
[12:49] – The effective use of learning technology is a core skill of successful learning businesses. If you’re looking for a technology partner, please check out our sponsor for this series.
The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the merging of events and education for organizations across the globe. Organizations have realized that synergizing their education and events strategies produces immeasurable benefits, but they need a technology solution that facilitates that merge.
Cadmium is focused on providing a full suite of technology solutions enabling organizations to meet the changing environment head on. From a host of event technologies to integrated learning management and content creation tools, Cadmium offers everything an organization needs to generate revenue and drive engagement.
Learn more, and request a demo to see how Cadmium can help your learning business at gocadmium.com.
The Most Important Skills for the Learning Business MBA
[13:43] – What are the most important skill sets for those leading and working in learning businesses? The answer to that will change depending on the nature of the organization, the people involved, and the situation. It’s hard to generalize too much, but anybody working in a learning business needs to have at least a good grasp of the fundamentals.
You need to know how to work with a spreadsheet. You need to understand things like the four Ps of marketing and why they matter and have some basic understanding of how to develop strategy. In addition to these sort of concrete core skills around business, anybody working in the learning business—and maybe this applies to any business—has to be skilled in critical thinking.
Critical thinking has aspects of judgment and aspects of what we’ve written and talked about before as metalearning. It’s the ability to step back and make sense of what’s going on and figure out how to find the value and how to move forward, whether we’re talking about big organizational decisions or just small day-to-day decisions.
We’ve already said there can be this sort of cognitive dissonance between the idea of business on the one hand, where you’ve got competition and profit, and learning and education on the other hand, where people often have a sense of purity about that. You have to be able to look at those two areas and recognize the ways that maybe they legitimately are in opposition but also recognize the ways in which they overlap—and overlap very strongly when your business is learning—and be able to figure out what to do with that. That’s one area where that kind of critical thinking judgment really applies.Jeff Cobb
Another area where critical thinking applies is around trends and buzzwords. You have to be able to step back, make some sense of the situation, and come to judgments that are going to result in value for the business and for the learners that you aim to serve. Critical thinking is going to help you no matter where your organization is.
There are also perennial issues that we see come up that you have to have skills to address.
[17:43] – When we asked Josh what he sees as the most important skills for those leading and working in learning businesses he offered two.
- Understand the current and potential customers, beyond a surface-level understanding. Know their motivations, the decision criteria they use, and why they’re working with you versus working with others.
- Know how to translate and transition that understanding into how you position the value you credibly bring to the market.
We also spoke with Arianne Urena, who has served on the Elevate LMS team at CommPartners and is now part of Cadmium, and she focused in on the same two areas as Josh: homing in on the needs and wants of the learners and then ensuring that your offerings are accessible and that the value is shown.
To understand the audience, a learning business needs to “get” market research and market analysis. Then to translate that understanding into products and services, a learning business has to understand product development and the pricing and promotion aspects of marketing.
To learn more, check out our related episode, The 4 Ps of Marketing Your Learning Business.
[21:24] – Critical thinking and judgment are needed because there are so many cut-and-paste things you can do around things like market assessment and understanding your audience. Those can be useful, but, if you can’t really apply that judgment to both crafting those instruments and then analyzing and evaluating what you get out of them, then you’re not going to get very far. You have to understanding your audience, and apply judgment and critical thinking to then make the decisions that are going to create the value that you need to create as a learning business.
Is your approach going to be market-focused or product-focused? What Josh and Arianne are talking about is that market-focused approach—really understanding that market and then giving them what they need and want. But there’s an alternative to that.
There’s leading the market, leading your audience, giving them what you can see they need, even if they haven’t fully recognized that. Deciding between a market focus and a product focus gets back to the critical thinking skill. It also ties very clearly to strategy. There are choices, decisions to make, and it takes critical thinking to decide which strategic approach you’re going to follow and execute on.
Deciding between a market focus and a product focus is a strategic question, and our talk of strategy reminds us of something that Cristyn Johnson, who focuses on training and development for clients and staff at Cadmium, said when we spoke with her. We asked her what she thinks those leading and working in a learning business need to know or be able to do in order to be successful, and she talked about planning, which is an important aspect of strategy.
Cristyn says it may seem like a no-brainer, but you need to create a plan to achieve the learning goals that you’re looking to achieve, and the plan should have a mix of short-term and long-term goals and objectives. During this planning process, she recommends thinking about the things that you have control over that can really help you achieve your goals.
Cristyn also likes to reiterate that an engaged learner is much more likely to not only retain the information that you’re giving them, but they’re also more likely to return, to come back and purchase again—and they’re also more likely to tell their friends and colleagues about the amazing experience that they had.
Cristyn adds that you should strive to foster an environment of learning both internally within your organization and externally with your learners. A learning mindset goes a long way for everybody embracing it.
It’s hard to have a successful learning business if you haven’t really thought about the learning culture in which you are working, the different constituents that make up that culture—not just your internal culture at the learning business—but more broadly, that universe of your learners and the different providers and subject matter experts, and really understanding the context in which you’re working as a learning business. Growing a learning culture is a fundamental skill for any learning business looking to thrive.
[27:36] – Wrap-up
We’ll offer a reflection question for you to ponder:
- If you were putting together a learning business MBA, what subjects and skills would you include? What was missing from the topics we touched on today?
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