When we talk about custom content, we often use words like “dynamic,” “adaptive,” “relevant,” “personalized” and “tailor-made.” However, when the conversation shifts to off-the-shelf content, the tone changes, and words like “static” and “one-size-fits-all” creep into our vocabulary. Custom content has certainly taken the spotlight with its ability to deliver bespoke experiences tailored to learners’ needs, but that doesn’t mean off-the-shelf content has no place in your learning library.

Both personalized and off-the-shelf content meet important and diverse learning needs, when used properly. To effectively leverage both, you just need a purposeful approach to training content and learning solutions. Let’s evaluate the use cases for off-the-shelf and custom learning content and how to approach content with purpose and take advantage of the best qualities of custom- and ready-made training.

Off-the-shelf Content

Off-the-shelf training content has come a long way from the days of cheesy instructional videos on VHS tapes that were pulled out and dusted off once a year to check the box on annual training. And, says Carl Crisostomo, product manager of content at Cornerstone OnDemand, we’ve “certainly moved away from the days, especially in compliance training, where you selected a role, and the content adjusted accordingly.” Today, some ready-made training content providers include “situational questions” and “gamified tests” to create a more personalized feel for learners.

There are a number of reasons organizations choose the off-the-shelf content route when setting out to build a new training initiative. Often, the decision is dictated by logistics, such as cost or time needed to create tailored content. However, although roles differ from one workplace to the next, sometimes, the processes and principles we use to go about our work don’t. For example, risk on the job may vary, but the principles that keep us safe apply across organizations.

Undoubtedly, learning and development (L&D) teams make a mistake when they assume that ready-made content is inferior to bespoke content. “It’s not about an either-or,” says Crisostomo, “It’s about a problem.” When an urgent learning need arises and time is limited, an off-the-shelf learning solution is easily sourced and delivered, whereas developing a personalized learning solution for a quick fix may cause more harm in the long run.

Custom Content

Custom content is created to reflect organizational culture, language and processes and provide learners with knowledge that’s specific to their company and their role. Custom-made content may be excessive for topics like ladder safety training; however, it is well suited for training initiatives — such as onboarding and culture training — where learning materials need to be personalized to the unique processes and capabilities of the organizations they’re deployed in. Custom content is also often preferred in sales training, as a comprehensive and detailed understanding of a company’s products and offerings is critical to sales organizations.

Custom content is most effective when “specific, clearly identified and measurable business challenges” are present, says JD Dillon, chief learning architect at Axonify. You can buy or create content that is specifically tailored to your organization, but if it does not align to an identified business need or necessary behavior change, the content does little good. Carole Bower, head of learning at Cornerstone OnDemand says, “It’s not actually about the content at all … The word ‘experience’ is better, in a way, because [learning is] a personal thing.”

Custom-made content can create a unique learner experience. When learning is treated as an event rather than an experience, knowledge retention is low, and application back on the job is unlikely. Custom content, tailored to individual learners, is more relevant to them and their work, encouraging engagement that will enable them to bring learning back to work.

However, “going after one particular challenge or topic could require a balance of assets,” both custom and off-the-shelf, according to Dillon. For example, custom training experience delivered with personalized content may be reinforced with incremental off-the-shelf microlearning afterward.

So Why Not Both?

The boundaries between off-the-shelf and custom-made content are blending, with many organizations opting for a mixture of ready-made and personalized training content. Off-the-shelf providers are also offering custom services to create a more dynamic experience for learners. “The off-the-shelf content market is a crowded space,” says Crisostomo, and “[providers are] moving toward creating richer and richer experiences.” According to Bower, there’s both “static content that sits in the bespoke area and static content that sits in the off-the-shelf area.”

“Regardless of where assets are being used or where any particular content came from,” says Dillon, the important thing is that the content is “put in the [learning] ecosystem for a specific reason” and effectively addresses learning needs that will help organizations improve performance and mitigate business challenges. It doesn’t matter whether you bought the training outright, outsourced the creation of personalized training or assembled an internal team to develop an entirely bespoke initiative. What does matter is that your content is part of a larger, purposeful and impactful learning experience that enables success for your organization and its people.