Everywhere I look, innovation is a topic of conversation. More than a buzz word, business leaders understand that without innovation, they can simply lose market relevance over time. Learning leaders I have spoken with have expressed the need to innovate learning in 2018. What lessons can we learn from business? Read on…

Lessons for the Training Industry

Considered one of “the most inexcusable business failures of the last 25 years”[1], Kodak lost its dominance in the photography and film industry with the advent of digital photography. In business school, professors teach about Kodak as THE example of what NOT to do. Kodak invented the digital camera in the ‘70s, but failed to market it in fear of cannibalizing their precious film business. It was this short-sightedness that eventually led to their demise. The lesson? Companies need to be constantly looking forward, preparing for and leading innovation in their field. But, trying to achieve two parallel goals – improving core products while achieving breakthrough innovations – is a common challenge and often insurmountable. Many successful companies are excellent at refining their products but struggle to integrate their core business with the pursuit of breakthrough products.

Ciba Vision, an Atlanta-based unit of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), is an exception. It managed to successfully exploit the present to better explore the future. In the early 1990s, J&J and its new disposable contact lenses were slowly but steadily gaining Ciba Vision’s market of conventional lenses. Glenn Bradley, Ciba Vision’s then president, understood that without innovation, the company was doomed to fail. He transformed his company into an ambidextrous organization[2]. Ciba Vision would continue to make money in its core business of conventional contacts, while at the same time produce innovative products. Bradley succeeded in optimizing the profits of its conventional-contacts business and freed resources to grow and support breakthrough initiatives.

The training industry can learn a lot from both Kodak and Ciba Vision.

Optimize What Works to Free Resources to Innovate Learning

If you ask learning leaders what is stopping them from innovating learning most will blame it on a lack of resources. When asked what is the biggest innovation in the last 20 years, and they cite eLearning.

The fact is that the learning ecosystem is changing now with the evolution of social media tools, HD videos, mobile devices, etc. Instructor-led training is nevertheless still the predominant training method used by all types of organizations, and for good reason. According to Brandon Hall Group’s research for 2017, instructor-led training has the highest use rating. In particular, “on a five-point rating scale where 1 is 0% of total training and 5 is more than 75%, instructor-led classroom rates a 3.4 – 21% more than even eLearning modules, which rated a 2”[3]. This should come as no surprise since instructor-led classroom methods rate 3.79 in effectiveness as opposed to 3.23 for eLearning modules. However, instructor-led training is more complex to manage and resource-intensive to deliver.

To enable innovation, training departments can adopt Ciba Vision’s philosophy to free resources to work on innovation while optimizing their core solutions. Stephan Thoma, Google’s former global L&D Director, has a similar system to ensure the capacity to innovate he calls “70-20-10”. (This is not the 70-20-10 model we typically talk about in learning so don’t be confused.) Thoma uses 70% of resources on core programs, 20% on developments to the core and 10% on totally new experiments, like peer-to-peer learning[4]. By iterating the process, in Thoma’s words, “Your R&D today becomes some of your enhancement work next year, which becomes your mainstream work the year after.” That is, to innovate, and to innovate well, we need to optimize first.

5 steps to “Optimize First”

Because Instructor-led programs are core to your training plan, focusing your optimization activities here will have quick payback towards your innovation plans.

1. Maximize current resources. Have a clear repository of all resources and keep track of occupancy and utilization rates to optimize the efficiency for each session.
2. Create a training plan and monitor progress. Use precise forecasts of training volume and costs to plan long-term, and track improvement of KPI year after year.
3. Apply project management best practices. Create a list of steps to follow before, during and after each training session. Clarify which team is responsible for each step and track the steps and completion of each task.
4. Optimize your budget. Track investments across different business units, countries, and currencies and eliminate unnecessary spend.
5. Improve collaboration and data-sharing. Discourage siloed spreadsheets and encourage collaborative tools to ensure that logistics, scheduling and financial processes integrate seamlessly.

Why take the “Optimize First” Approach?

ILT Training Performance Report ROI CalculatorFirst of all, by optimizing your current resources, you free up money, time, people and brain-power to innovate. When training management is centralized in a system, resources are used more efficiently and on what really matters. Not only does this allow you to free up resources to apply to innovation activities, it allows you to discover new revenue opportunities, like selling training to customers or partners. Second, by optimizing your core business, you gain a deeper understanding of it. Indeed by learning where resources are used efficiently and where not, you understand more in detail every part of your business. Third, by understanding each part of your core business better, you bring stability to it. Since innovation is inherently risky, you do not want to risk building on something that it is not solid. You need to have a strong and stable core business to be able to add risk and resources in innovation. Optimizing first will allow you to do all this.

Next month I will bring you a story from one of our customers that has successfully applied this “Optimize First” philosophy to drive innovations in learning.

To assess your company’s training performance get a free and personalized report on your training operations with our ROI Calculator


[1] Paul B. Carroll, Chunka Mui. Billion-Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years. Portfolio. 2009.

[2] Charles A O’Reilly and Michael Tushman. Lead And Disrupt. 1st ed. Print. Stanford University Press.

[3] Brandon Hall Group. Training Budget Benchmarks and Optimizations for 2017. December 2016

[4] Degreed. The Innovators’ Guide to Learning Technology. 2017.