Customer card Consumer
ATD Blog

Learners Are Consumers, Too

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Just a few months ago, I was sitting in a Deloitte ideation lab at 30 Rockefeller Center looking out over New York City, feeling like a demigod of my industry as my peers and I started a robust discussion around the question, “Who is our customer?” We were debating whether our customer was the business or the learner. The more I’ve thought about that discussion, the more I realize that as long as we’re still having that discussion, we’re missing the point. One is our customer; the other is our consumer.

Let’s back up for a moment and identify the difference between a customer and a consumer. The customer is the buyer and the consumer is the user. You’ll know this example well: During the holidays, toy commercials target the consumer—the kids who will want the toy—and apply pressure on parents (the customer) to make the purchase.

Yes, the business is the customer, but we must recognize that the learner is the consumer. And as a consumer, shouldn’t the learner drive decisions around our content, our technology, and our experiences?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we ignore the business. I’m not asking that we abandon the belief that we must produce business results. I am suggesting that we start thinking of our learners as consumers—empowered, choice-making, critical-thinking, credit card–carrying consumers—because they are. Learning is becoming a free market, and we’d better catch up with that concept quickly.


If we start treating our learners like consumers, the game will fundamentally change. If, with each product we release, we ask ourselves the critical question, “Would they buy it?” the level of innovation, the quality of our design, and our focus on experience will take a dramatic turn for the better.


Sure, this means we’ll have to put a lot of effort into listening to the learner about what they want; concepts like design thinking and user research will become a part of our work, too. We’ll have to become obsessed with delivering with more agility and getting to market much more quickly than ADDIE will allow. It also means we’ll have to stay at the forefront of new technology and pay attention to things like application programming interfaces, artificial intelligence, and personalization.

If we desire to be more than box-checking compliance and humdrum e-learning modules, we have an obligation to value the voice of our consumers in a way we’ve never known before. It’s our moment to begin valuing the person (the learner) over the process (learning) and let that shape our industry. This cannot be an iterative approach for slight improvements. This is a moment that’s going to require a radical transformation in our departments that resembles the digital transformation we see occurring in our businesses.

Matthew Daniel will be presenting Compliance Doesn't Have to Kill Innovation at ATD's Talent Development Across Industries (TDI) conference this October.

About the Author

Matthew is principal consultant at Guild Education where he supports Fortune 500 companies in putting together plans to upskill and reskill their talent as they prepare for the Future of Work.

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