It’s hard to believe, but here we are at episode 300 of the Leading Learning Podcast. When we sat down to record episode 1 back in 2015, we had no idea we’d make it this far. We are truly grateful for the thousands of learning business professionals who tune in each month and make the show part of their own lifelong learning.
Milestones are a natural time to pause and reflect, so we’re doing exactly that. In this commemorative episode, we highlight the value of embracing your integral role as a provider of lifelong learning and as a learning business. We explain why recognizing that you’re part of the ecosystem serving lifelong learners better positions you to serve them and deliver on the goals of reach, revenue, and impact.
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[00:00] – Intro
[01:10] – We released episode 1 in August 2015, and what we talked about then is still relevant and still what we’re addressing: the importance of reach, revenue, and impact; the role of data in making informed decisions; and the need to innovate and create blue oceans.
There’s value in repetition when it comes to learning, and we’ve always thought of the Leading Learning Podcast as a learning resource. We’ve always hoped to provide practical and actionable insights. Since we’ve been doing this for so long, we can also claim spaced repetition.
Something we talked about in that first episode was the growing importance and growing recognition of lifelong learning.
Lifelong Learning Is the Umbrella
[02:32] – Many of the things driving the importance of lifelong learning in 2015 are still driving the importance of lifelong learning today: technology innovations and the changing nature of work, for example. The COVID pandemic accelerated the pace of some changes.
The term “lifelong learning” isn’t without its issues, though. In some ways, it is a controversial term.
We work in what we characterize as continuing education and professional development, but we think of it as lifelong learning. We sort of assume that the learning businesses we work with, the learning business professionals we work with, think of it as lifelong learning as well. But we’ve noticed over time that’s not always the case. In fact, a lot of learning businesses don’t necessarily embrace that term, “lifelong learning.”Jeff Cobb
Do an informal survey of the Web sites of learning businesses, and you’ll see many mentions of “continuing education” and “professional development.” You’ll rarely see “lifelong learning.” We sometimes even encounter learning businesses that say they don’t do lifelong learning. They obviously think of lifelong learning as something different from continuing education, professional development, conferences, meetings, and seminars that they offer.
Because the organizations we serve sometimes don’t own the term “lifelong learning,” we’ve tended to pair it with “professional development” and “continuing education.” We’ll talk about working with organizations that serve the global market for continuing education, professional development, and lifelong learning, but that’s technically duplicative. We see lifelong learning as the umbrella term, and professional development and continuing education fall under that umbrella. PD and CE are two types of lifelong learning.
Academic degrees and diplomas usually aren’t considered lifelong learning. For us, lifelong learning is any learning done by adults. This isn’t purely semantics or only theoretical. If organizations don’t view what they’re providing as lifelong learning, then they miss out on recognizing peer organizations and potential partners. They also miss out on recognizing potential competitors, like universities, Coursera, edX, or LinkedIn Learning, as a threat when the adults they serve might see those as viable sources for their lifelong learning.
[05:45] – Coursera, edX, and LinkedIn all see the imperative to reskill and upskill, and they classify reskilling and upskilling as lifelong learning. Something we’ve seen grow is competition. If you’re a traditional continuing education and professional development provider, you’ve seen new entrants in your market—sometimes in the forms of companies like Coursera and edX and sometimes in the form of your own subject matter experts. Those SMEs now have a completely new opportunity with the growth of online course platforms and other technologies that are affordable and easy to use.
Thinking that PD or CE isn’t lifelong learning also harms learners because it keeps the lifelong learning market confusing and fragmented. It puts a great burden on learners to figure out how to stitch options together. That burden hurts those most at risk. It hurts diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it means we’re not living up to learning being the potentially equalizing, democratic force that it might be.
One of the biggest things that has changed in the past couple of decades and especially in the last five to ten years is the level of access to learning experiences. On the lifelong learner side, courses, classes, conferences, and informal learning resources are now readily and abundantly available. Of course, that can be overwhelming.
It’s extremely important for learning businesses to realize they’re engaged in a common enterprise. We all should think about what we’re providing and doing as lifelong learning. This includes how we develop our own learning business’s offerings and how we partner with each other, how we identify and interact to serve lifelong learners, whether they’re doing it for their professional lives, their personal lives, or both.
When we think of “lifelong learning” as an umbrella term, we can then recognize that there are others with us under that umbrella. This provides community and a sense of shared identity. We’re all serving the lifelong learning market. We also have the option to take the umbrella metaphor even further.
…lifelong learning really is becoming an essential part of what we need in order to live and work. We can think of lifelong learning as being an umbrella, as providing protection, as providing shelter, and we really need to do as learning businesses all that we can do to make that lifelong learning opportunity as welcoming, as understandable as possible to everyone who needs it.Celisa Steele
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Learning Businesses Provide Lifelong Learning (and Continuing Education and Professional Development)
[10:56] – Just as embracing the term “lifelong learning” creates some cohesion, connection, and community, so does the idea of learning businesses. “Learning business” is a term that we coined.
Learning businesses are market-facing providers of learning. They create learning experiences and sell them to adult lifelong learners. They have to generate revenue, and most of them have to generate profit. So they are businesses, and they are learning providers, and the blend of those two makes them learning businesses.
Learning businesses include trade and professional associations, academic continuing education units, training firms, and edupreneurs. The reason we coined the term “learning business” is because there wasn’t a succinct term that encompassed all of these organizations, and yet we see commonalities, such as being market-facing and serving adult learners. In addition to be being useful for distinguishing these types of learning providers, the term also provides a sense of community and connection. Learning businesses are different from corporate learning and development and academic degree programs.
Learning businesses exist in a landscape made up of lifelong learners, who are trying to figure out what they need to know and how to keep their skills and knowledge up to date, looking at various options, and trying to find ones that match what they need and want.
Individual subject matter experts have more options than ever to go out on their own to provide information, but they often also work with learning businesses. Many learning businesses rely on subject matter experts to deliver conference sessions, for example.
[13:54] – As Leading Learning and as Tagoras (the parent company of Leading Learning), we’ve traditionally concentrated on learning businesses. But, as we’ve seen what’s happening with the opportunities available to experts, we’ve expanded to serve that group as well, both to help them in working with learning businesses and to help them in being learning businesses themselves.
Lifelong learners are the largest group in the learning business landscape. We’re all in that circle. If you’re working in a learning business, if you’re an expert, you are a lifelong learner.
We made a visual to explain to ourselves and to others how we operate and serve the world of lifelong learning. Our high-level goal is elevating and amplifying lifelong learning. It is important to understand the similarities you share with other learning businesses because that offers the chance to partner and work together. It also helps with strategy because it means you’ll be better attuned to the options that are available to your learners. The only thing worse than competing in a bloody red ocean is competing in a red ocean without realizing it.
The Importance of Strategy for Your Learning Business
[15:37] – Even a simple illustration like the one above can help you realize how big lifelong learning is. There are new entrants, and competition is fierce. Learners have to sort through many confusing, competing options. That’s why over the years we have repeatedly returned to strategy in general, and Blue Ocean Strategy in particular.
We talk a lot about strategy because it is increasingly necessary to be strategic—both as a learning business and as a learner—to figure out how you fit in this landscape and how to make your way through this landscape. If you are a learning business and you can’t articulate your role and value in a clear and compelling way to your learners, you’re going to have a hard time surviving and thriving.
To learn more about strategy for your learning business, check out these past Leading Learning Podcast episodes:
- “Blue Ocean Strategy for Your Learning Business”
- “3 Core Elements of Learning Business Strategy”
- “Learning Business Strategy Q&A”
Why Terminology Matters
[17:01] – We’ve been talking about two terminology issues because we see value and opportunity in embracing your role as a provider of lifelong learning and as a learning business.
It’s an opportunity. It’s a service to the people. Whether they’re members, whether they’re customers that you’re providing learning education experiences for, it’s a service to the organizations those people work for. It’s a service to the communities that those organizations operate in. It is a service to society. This is a big role, I think, for the whole arena of education to be an impactful provider of lifelong learning and to help to really elevate and amplify lifelong learning.Jeff Cobb
Reach, Revenue, and Impact
Getting reach, revenue, and impact to work together is key to delivering value and achieving success.
Reach is about connecting with as many of the right learners as you can. It’s not just about quantity but also about quality. Strategy is key to figuring out who those right learners are. You have to be clear about whom you serve if you’re going to have the reach that you intend to have.
A common mistake is to say the audience for your learning business is everyone in the field, profession, or industry you’re focused on. That’s usually not specific because it’s very difficult to serve that whole range even harder to serve it well. If you want to compete well, you have to identify who the right learners are for the specific learning experiences that you offer.
Revenue is the lifeblood that keeps a learning business running and growing. Even for organizations organized as a nonprofit or for organizations that offer learning as a member benefit, positive net revenue is usually essential or at least very highly desirable. Even in cases where breakeven is all that’s required, doing better than breakeven means more money and therefore more resources to put against delivering on mission. If you’re a for-profit learning business, revenue is often front and center, and maximizing revenue becomes important both from an idealistic point of view—the commitment to mission—and from an operational and fiscal standpoint.
Revenue is, of course, tied to reach. You need to reach the high-quality and high-quantity learners. To maximize revenue, you need to understand your audience. What do they need? What do they value? What will they pay for? You also need to understand pricing. We’ll make the obvious (but often overlooked) point that increasing prices is the easiest way to increase your learning business’s revenue.
To learn more about pricing, check out these Leading Learning resources:
- “Effective Pricing Practices for Your Educational Products”
- “Strategic Pricing for Educational Products”
- “Right Price Right Now”
- “How to Price Educational Products – 10 Tips from 20 Years of Experience”
[21:44] – The third dimension is impact. Impact is what makes a learning business vital and sustainable over time. It’s hopefully what all learning businesses aim for. Learning businesses really want to help people. They really want to create positive change.
Learning businesses that can create significant impact for the learners, the organizations, and the fields and industry they serve not only survive but thrive. Learning businesses that fail to deliver or show impact will ultimately have trouble surviving because of the competition for learners’ time, attention, and money. Learners are overwhelmed with choices and feel increasingly time-poor, so they need to know that the learning they’re investing in will really help them.
And it’s not just the learners who need to know that but also the employers and other stakeholders who have a hand in paying directly for the individual’s education. They want to know that it means something. Beyond the individual learners, there’s also the mission perspective. Many learning businesses—perhaps especially those that are nonprofits or within associations—have a higher mission that’s focused beyond learners and is about raising the bar in the field, industry, or profession they serve. Even many for-profit learning businesses have a sense of mission. There’s something about being connected to learning that makes mission inherent to the business.
It’s easier than ever before to measure impact with new and improved tools and technologies. It’s becoming common for learners and other stakeholders to expect to get data about the effectiveness and impact of particular educational products or experiences. Of course, learning businesses should also want that data. They should want to know that they are having a measurable impact in the fields, professions, and industries they are serving.
[24:00] – Reach, revenue, and impact are like three legs of a stool. They need to be in balance. If reach and revenue are given too much emphasis and impact is neglected, then value problems will arise. Learners won’t see the kind of results that will make them tell others and want to come back themselves.
If reach and impact are stressed without sufficient emphasis on revenue, then the business is going to grind to a halt, whether quickly or over time, because it’s going to lack the funding to continue.
If reach is ignored while you aspire to revenue and impact, then you might have potentially valuable offerings that are best-kept secrets. Keep your goals for reach, revenue, and impact balanced, and keep those three goals balanced with an acknowledgement that you’re serving lifelong learners.
Embrace your role as a provider of lifelong learning. When you see your learning business as part of the ecosystem serving lifelong learners, you are better positioned to serve those learners and better positioned to deliver on your goals of reach, revenue, and impact.Celisa Steele
[25:24] – Wrap-up
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