Avoid ‘Marketing’ Learning to Employees

'Selling' learn to employees makes development seem optional, not imperative to how a business functions.

Recently, the issue of marketing training to employees came up. Some suggested that learning leaders need to market training like any other organization markets its products and services, and they offered a number of excellent suggestions to create awareness and demand for the courses. While I don’t have any objections to these suggestions, I don’t think it is a good model for learning and development in general.

The assumption behind this model is that L&D exists to offer a variety of courses just as a company exists to sell its products. Furthermore, success will be defined by how many sales (participants) we get. Thus, to be successful, learning and development has to market just like a company to get employees (our customers) to take our training (product).

I don’t believe this is why L&D exists. I believe it exists, first and foremost, to help our organizations achieve their goals. Consequently, learning and development should align and prioritize its efforts around the organization’s highest priority goals. This means finding out what the CEO’s top goals are and then working with senior leaders to determine if learning has a role to play. If it does, then work with goal owners to develop learning initiatives in direct support of those goals. The learning and its ultimate effect on the goals will be a result of close collaboration and partnership between L&D and the goal owner and stakeholders in the owner’s organization.

In this model, why would learning and development be marketing or selling the learning? The goal owner, such as the senior vice president of sales, has agreed that some of the salespeople need the training. Both of you have worked to identify the appropriate target audience. Presumably, everyone in the target audience will be required to take the training or to demonstrate the desired proficiency.

The senior vice president of sales, with your help, will need to convey the expected benefit of the training, and will need to communicate the appropriate positive incentives (and/or negative consequences for not) for applying the desired behaviors, but this is not marketing. If the senior vice president of sales decides the learning will simply be recommended, then the two of you will need to communicate its expected benefits, but this still should not represent an all-out selling effort for the course.

So, for learning aligned to high-priority organization goals, learning and development leaders should not have to “sell” the training, although they may need to help the goal owner communicate the expectations and benefits. Compliance-related learning will be mandatory as will learning for basic skills required to do a job so no selling required. That leaves the rest of the learning offerings that are unaligned to important goals of the organization. This learning, like team building and effective communication, is important but much less important than the other learning that is aligned or mandatory. Consequently, it just doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of effort selling this learning to employees.

I agree that good marketing will lead to more employees taking these courses, but that shouldn’t be the goal of learning and development. The goal is to help your company achieve its goals by offering learning aligned to you company’s goals and by providing all the required compliance and basic skill training. Spend your time and resources here, not on marketing the unaligned learning.