Too often, we think of outsourcing as an admission of defeat: “My team is too small, or we don’t have the budget, or we don’t have the expertise. Since we don’t have the money, skill or size, we have to bring in someone to help.”

This mindset can make even the best outsourcing experience feel negative, and it can make us unnecessarily resistant to this strategy. Over the last few years, however, our industry has been rethinking the learning function. We now talk of “the learning and performance ecosystem” and strive for an ideal that places performance as the end goal. The inherent complexity of this ecosystem and the measure of performance within it is helping us understand the sophistication with which we need to manage L&D teams.

For example, our methods and modes have proliferated dramatically. A recent study by Training Industry, Inc. looked at learner preferences across more than 14 modalities. How does even a large, well-funded L&D team support learner preferences across more than 14 modalities? The people, processes and tools necessary to sustain a performance ecosystem are varied and increasingly specialized, and outsourcing is now not a weakness that must be fixed but, instead, an opportunity to tackle this complexity.

If the end goal is high learner and organizational performance, outsourcing isn’t as much about cost savings as it is about finding the right complement of vendors and technology to create a sustainable system. Defining what constitutes the right complement, however, can itself be a daunting challenge. It’s like mixing a cocktail or baking the ideal chocolate chip cookie. The base ingredients can be similar, but the final results will vary. Let’s look at four of the key outsourcing ingredients and evaluate the learner needs that may change how (or how much) we use them.

1. Agile Talent

We used to call this ingredient “staff augmentation,” but, as the gig economy has flourished, the opportunity now is to bring in experts to provide key components of the ecosystem. You might work directly with freelancers or leverage an aggregator to make that process easier and more nimble. From a learner standpoint, however, you can achieve the most out of this option by considering the type of expertise you need:

  • What kind of experience will best strengthen my team?
  • What skill sets will help us best serve our learner populations?
  • How can the organization scale the necessary expertise to provide training, coaching or subject matter expertise – particularly in an era of niche specialization?

2. Off-the-shelf Solutions

We don’t always think of off-the-shelf content as outsourcing, but it is the same principle of bringing in outside expertise, whether in the form of stock content or premium content and services. It can bring in new ideas to the organization or even shape the culture. Stock content works well when you’re using it as a basis for further customization – augmenting it with your organization’s own expertise and experience. Our learner focus should prompt us to ask what learners really need. Premium programs provide ready-to-go solutions, but they may lack the internal hooks and prompts to transfer the skills to the work environment. Ask yourself why you’re looking for something off-the-shelf – is it for convenience, or because you’re introducing some innovative content to the organization?

3. Custom Strategy and Solutions

When the need is truly unique to your organization and of strategic importance, a custom strategy and/or solution will help to meet those needs. In this case, the reason for outsourcing may be that the type of solution is outside either the design or development skills of your internal team. For example, let’s say that you have a strong internal team that produces great microlearning. What do you do when your organization needs a broad blended learning curriculum? Given the wide variety of needs and the even wider variety of methods to meet them, it is unrealistic for most organizations to build a single team that can accomplish all learning goals. Outsourcing for custom solutions to specific problems can increase your options and your effectiveness.

4. Managed Learning Services

We used to talk about business process outsourcing (BPO), which focused on controlling the costs of previously internal functions. Managed learning services finds strategic value in outsourcing the management of some or all of the learning function in order to improve results. Managed learning services can work against the needs of learners if you aren’t selecting the right services aggregator. You can calculate this value based on the perceived impact on learner performance, not just savings to the bottom line.

Calibrating the right mix of these four outsourcing ingredients can hinge on several important factors that are worth recasting from the perspective of learner needs. Organizations often become comfortable with one of these options and use it to the exclusion of the others. But no matter how much you love chocolate chips, you can’t make a cookie without the flour and sugar. If your only outsourcing tool is hiring an instructional designer through an agile talent model, you’ll miss out on the full set of design, content and delivery options that come from outsourcing that work as a custom development project.

Is there an ideal mix? It’s different for every organization, but there are some questions you can use to evaluate your outsourcing strategy:

  • Are you overly dependent on a single strategy?
  • What needs are not being met?
  • Is a particular need a short-term or long-term need?
  • Which decisions have you made based on cost-only factors rather than learner factors?

The takeaway is that leveraging the full outsourcing toolkit can round out the capabilities of your internal team, expand the reach of that team, and introduce new ideas and content.

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