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ATD Blog

Are You in the Education or Training Business?

Thursday, August 29, 2019

A few weeks ago a client asked me to provide some insight into the quality of its online courseware and homegrown LMS, which hosts more than 3,500 courses. Although I started overseeing the creation of online programming more than 30 years ago, this shouldn’t make me an expert, especially given the vast changes in technological delivery that have transpired over this period. Yet, we are learner experts because we can comment from a user’s perspective regarding the learning experience itself. So, I spent several hours browsing the platform and taking numerous courses.

My reaction was complicated and multi-faceted, and my response to the client’s request was not so simply apparent. I realized everyone’s definition of good instructional quality varies according to:

  • exactly what the expected outcomes are
  • what the targeted audience expects
  • what guarantees are offered
  • how critical the content is to the performance of the roles held by the audience.

As it turns out, job performance is especially critical to my client’s user audience because the content spans numerous topics around public safety—from law enforcement, to fire protection, to custodial and corrections services. And, in some cases, performance criteria for these roles has been legislated by local, state, and federal governments.

This reminded me of the much bigger question related to the subject of this blog series for the last five years: What business are you in? In this case, the I asked them if this was a technology or a content company?

While certainly technology is needed to deliver content, and content fuels the technology, many organizations in our industry haven’t quite figured out the answer to that question. They end up ineffectively splitting their resources between the two, sub-optimizing the organizations’ performances. If your business is focused on the continuous curation of your content expertise that just so happens to be delivered on an LMS platform, that’s where your focus should be. If, on the other hand, you are more interested in providing the most engaging learning experiences via technological delivery, you need to focus on continually updating and adding appropriate features to your platform to enhance those learning experiences.

Essentially, only when you know what business you are in will questions about platform and course quality become apparent.


Perhaps, the first questions you should ask are these:

  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • What are the learners’ characteristics?
  • What are the expectations of the buying organization?
  • How will you deliver your solutions?
  • Is your pricing aligned with the learners’ and their organizations’ capacities?

Once I understood the answers to those questions, it became clearer to me that while I felt the courseware and platform could have been significantly improved, it was good enough for what it was trying to accomplish. Most importantly, I realized that its learning outcomes were focused more on education than on training. By this, I mean that more information and knowledge acquisition than pure behavior change was required. Or, as some pundits have characterized it, the “knowing versus doing” dichotomy, wherein knowing is about acquisition of knowledge and doing is about the application of knowledge. The degree of instructional soundness required for both ends of this continuum are quite different. Issues around responsive design and the use of tile panels, badges, gamification, microlearning, learner control, and the like are more important the closer you get to the behavior change end of the desired outcome continuum.

As it turns out, this particular firm largely provides information about the dos and don’ts of interacting appropriately in a variety of public service situations, some of which are compliance-mandated and others of which are based on loose legal policy, general guidance, and even common sense. In many cases, there isn’t much need for high-end interactivity with learning bells and whistles. Video demos of right versus wrong ways with follow-up discussion by experts and then some knowledge testing might be enough; however, when behavior change is required to become compliant—that is, more on the “doing” side— deeper immersive learning experiences with high interactivity, and even simulations, would be most appropriate.


Beware, however, of the curse of overengineering your product or program solution, which can be detrimental to the growth of your business. You must determine whether your learner audience needs knowledge acquisition or behavior change, or perhaps a little of both, in which case your instructional design should be appropriately reflected.

As you build your business, have you thoroughly considered what business you are in? Do you have a good understanding of your target customers? Do you fully understand what your customers and their audiences really need in a learning solution? And, does your instructional format accurately optimize these learning outcomes?

For more insight, check out my book The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His first book, The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm, was published by ATD in 2017. His recent follow-up, 12 Winning Strategies for Building a Talent Development Firm is now available on Amazon.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected]

1 Comment
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nice article, thanks for sharing I will definitely follow your articles in the future. also followed the articles on same industry topics
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