What I Learnt Trying To Sell Online Education To Companies

In the last five to six months I have interacted with more than 100 companies to understand their L&D (learning and development) priorities and discover how they are leveraging online education for people development, at various levels. The number becomes more than 200 if we include the companies that my colleagues have met too.
At UpGrad, as an online education company, it is crucial for us to be integrated with the industry. We listen and learn from the industry to create the most relevant programs. We collaborate with industry to strengthen our academic programs’ content. In return, industry uses our products and services for fulfilling their talent needs.

Organizational L&D at Crossroads with Online Education

We have met some of the biggest companies in India, ranging from various business groups to industries such as IT/ITES, BFSI, Manufacturing, FMCG and more. Our conversations have been with HR/L&D/Organization Development heads, business heads, functional heads as well as founders and CEOs.
While the conversations have been incredibly positive with a lot of optimism for the future of learning and therefore, people’s careers, we have also found that organizations are not completely ready for the change to occur quickly. 
Our conversations generated enough curiosity towards new ways of doing things. It was an apparent want, for the individual leaders (HR/L&D Heads), to stay ahead from the rest while getting better results on efforts and investments. However, the enthusiasm dipped remarkably when we came to actual application in their respective organizations. 
I must also mention that some organizations did pleasantly surprised us with their thought process, approach and progress, namely Tata Communications, RPG Group and a few more.
It goes without saying that we learnt many things in the process – here I am highlighting a few that B2B sales teams, in our industry and others, can derive some value from.

  • Awareness without Direction 

If you invest a little time, you will know that there are enough resources available (everywhere and from everyone!) for you to know about use of technology in ‘professional people development’ and all the new advances taking place worldwide, in real-time.
Individuals, therefore, know! The people we met, listened to us with fascination in case they didn’t know. But this knowledge happens to be so vast and rapidly increasing that organizational leaders have, naturally, yet to find a direction that might fit with their overall priorities, immediately.

  • Workforce Demographics

Organizations have an interesting challenge of adapting and offering L&D solutions to different generations of learners. While most of those belonging to older generations still prefer traditional ways of learning, newer entrants (millennials) are either learning to use online education or have already moved on to it.
Naturally, these challenges are more significant for legacy companies belonging to core industries such as FMCG, power, etc. For example, one large Indian conglomerate, and one of the most admired Indian consumer brands, categorically told us that their people don’t go for online education and they have seen less than stellar results whenever they have attempted to use it. This has made them cautious. (How it was envisaged and implemented is a question for another time!)
On the other hand, knowledge intensive companies (IT/ITES, professional services, etc.) have been relying more on existing systems in place while dabbling more frequently, to experiment with new ways of doing things.

  • The Albatross Named LMS

Companies have been focusing largely on their Learning Management Systems (LMS). Even though we thought that LMS has served limited purpose as far as impactful and outcome-oriented learning is concerned, organizations told us that they would expect our programs to be available on their LMS.
To my mind, I have not yet been able to completely justify the investments (money, time and effort) made in LMS.
Small, mandatory modules during employee on-boarding/induction get easily completed while recommended ones – meant for actual capability enhancement – need significant effort from line managers or HR teams without achieving desired results.
Organizations continue to load their LMS with more and more content in the hope that employees will use it.

  • Business Heads!

It has been easier for us to convince organizations when we reached out to them through business heads. They understood teams’ capabilities readily and were willing to explore more. This happened because our offerings allowed them enough flexibility to learn with similar or better results as offline sessions.
Apart from a few instances, the HR teams put us in a longer cycle of discussions. This fact alone could make us draw various inferences on the way organizations function or have been functioning. Personally, I loved it when HR was more courageous and led even without the authority!

  • Finding the Right Mix

With a complex set of business, people, behavioral and leadership competencies to develop across levels, it hasn’t been very easy for L&D teams to figure out the best mix to achieve organizational learning objectives.
Behavioral trainings and leadership development programs were believed to be more effective in offline sessions/workshops. Functional or technical trainings were found more suitable to be addressed using online education.
In the absence of a perfect solution, organizations have been experimenting with various mixes through the years.
I wait to witness and explore direct application of Augmented and Mixed Reality in leadership development but till that develops, a blended approach will work as well.



  • What Worked the Best?

Having said the above, it was comparatively much easier and heartening to collaborate with organizations on knowledge sharing and content development. Collaboration with industry have made our offerings richer and more relevant for prevalent business scenarios.
For our Data Analytics, Digital Marketing, Product Management and Entrepreneurship programs, we have been privileged to collaborate with organizations like Genpact, HCL, Uber, Aravind Brands, Grofers, MakeMyTrip, Zivame, Shopclues, Inmobi, Domino’s, Zomato, Flipkart and many more.
Organizations generate and store incredible amounts of knowledge and content, almost daily. From our point of view, it should be more readily available and accessible to learners. Online education therefore is going to be the medium that could easily be more robust and content-rich, unlike traditional methods.
Consumer-facing selling is a key and important function for us at UpGrad, or for that matter, any company rivaling us in a similar space. However, as a society and as industry representatives, we must acknowledge the reach and scale that the B2B market has, where education for professionals is concerned. Without industry support, the impact of this kind of education may not be felt on a larger, societal level.
While companies like us are working hard to develop a skilled workforce that is, and will be, in demand; greater support from industry will provide us with necessary encouragement and impetus to achieve our objectives. This is clearly, for the greater benefit of all!
In this article, I have tried to give you a glimpse of where organizations are and where online professional education could be headed, along with what shape and form it could take in the future.
Optimistic as I am, I imagine it to be radically different from what it appears to be at this point. 

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