Learning Business Manifesto

BY Celisa Steele

Image of work "Manifesto" for Learning Business Manifesto

Lifelong learning is the imperative of our age, and those who lead learning in their fields will lead their fields.

That’s the Learning Business Manifesto in short form, and it underpins our thinking in general and has influenced much of our work, including the Learning Business Maturity Model.

In today’s world where change happens more rapidly than ever, where people change jobs more frequently than before, and where people live longer, learning is not a nice to have or something that you can check off your list as completed when you leave high school or college or even grad school. Lifelong learning is imperative.

Learning is at the very heart of the value any learning business offers, and the Learning Business Manifesto explores that further in five supporting principles.

But, before we turn to the supporting principles, let’s define learning business.

What Is a Learning Business?

A learning business is something different than the similar-sounding learning organization. A learning organization is one that pays attentions to what works (and doesn’t), and it adapts and grows based on what it observes. In that sense, every business should seek to be a learning organization.

But we’re getting at something different with the term learning business. As we define it, a learning business has to meet two criteria.

  1. A fundamental reason for the its existence is to generate revenue through selling learning and education experiences to a target audience. In most cases, this means net positive revenue or profit.
  2. It has to self-identify as a business, meaning the majority of the people working in the business recognize that revenue generation is a fundamental reason for its existence.

To further explain what a learning business is, let’s consider some examples that are not learning businesses. Most corporate training does not fall in the learning business category. While corporate training can and should contribute to business success, it is typically a cost center, and its audience is usually primarily internal to the company (if we leave aside the concept of extended enterprise).

We also do not think of traditional academic institutions as learning businesses. Many public institutions are heavily subsidized, and, even in institutions that do have to generate at least break-even revenue, it is rare for the revenue requirement to be emphasized—or even recognized outside of a small segment of the administration. So, traditional academic institutions are shaky at best on the first criterion, and they rarely meet the second.

There are exceptions, though, which can lead to the types of organizations that do qualify as learning businesses. In the academic world, continuing education and extension programs often fall in the learning business camp. These parts of colleges and universities are often run more like private training and education companies, which are another type of organization we classify as learning businesses.

Lastly, most trade and professional associations are learning businesses or, at the very least, run learning businesses within their overall business. This is true whether an organization is selling education and training directly, or it provides access to learning opportunities—whether formal or informal—as part of the benefit of membership. In either case, learning is driving revenue and should be treated as a business.

With that definition of learning business in mind, let’s return to the Learning Business Manifesto.

The Five Supporting Principles of the Learning Business Manifesto

To support the baseline manifesto—lifelong learning is the imperative of our age, and those who lead learning in their fields will lead their fields—we offer five principles.

Learners don’t value expertise.

Not ultimately. While the reputation and experience of subject matter experts often factor heavily into the initial decision to participate in an educational offering, they are not what keeps learners coming back for the next offering, and the one after that. What people truly value and come back for are outcomes. Learners value and come back for learning experiences that they trust will create the positive change they are seeking. Expertise is often taken as a promise of value, but the promise must be fulfilled.

Savvy learning businesses understand this and don’t focus on the specific, fixed subject matter expertise they can bring to bear; instead they focus on offering highly relevant and practical learning opportunities that learners can apply to their work and their lives. They also focus on tracking the impact of these learning experiences and clearly demonstrating that they are capable of delivering the real value learners seek.

If you can’t see it, they can’t see it.

The it here could be replaced by vision or value or impact. You have to have and articulate a vision for the impact of your education, for the value of what you offer, for the measurable impact of what you’re doing.

Because if you don’t articulate that vision or value or impact, you can’t assume learners will see it.

Good design is the enemy of impact.

This is a corollary of the epigram “Perfection prevents progress.” A learning business can get caught up in the trappings of learning—perfectly phrased learning objectives or the strict adherence to an interaction every two minutes in an self-paced online course—and forget about the learning. Often what’s needed to result in impactful learning is something much simpler and more fundamental.

What’s essential is setting the context—why this, whatever it is, is so important to learn.

What’s essential is that learners engage with the content and begin applying it, and and that may happen as readily by offering a reflection question verbally as by building slick e-learning interactions.

Good design is also often at odds with innovating and iterating rapidly. A minimum viable product, or MVP, can be a great way to float a trial balloon and see if a new learning offering will have impact—but MVPs, by definition, aren’t polished. They don’t fit the classic “good design” definition. But they could have great impact.

Marketing is education is marketing.

If you want to educate, you must market.

Think of the rise of content marketing and its focus on marketing that delivers educational value. A lot of marketing—and most of the best marketing—is educationally oriented. The Podcasts and Webinars that we and so many others offer for free are examples of marketing that is education.

Think also of the fact that educational offerings are often their own best source of marketing. Each educational offering that is part of your portfolio represents one of the best opportunities you have for highlighting and promoting other educational offerings in your portfolio or ones that you plan to develop. Your easiest sales are always to your current customers. Current course and conference customers will be some of your most receptive buyers of education—but you have to be sure to market to them as they are engaging in education.

This does not mean “selling from the stage” or being overly promotional. But it does mean making sure your current customers and members are aware of your other relevant offerings and how they fit into the overall value story you tell as a learning business.

There is potential for a value loop in which marketing educates people, education markets to people, and so on. Successful learning businesses focus on how to create and strengthen that loop.

Learning is noun and verb.

Learning is a thing—what we deliver to learners. But learning is also an action—what learners have to do on an ongoing basis.

You may have heard calls to move away from one-off events and focus on products, calls to embrace learning as a process. It’s true that learning is a process – and most organizations could stand to put more emphasis on it as a process. But it’s also true that one-time events and products are part of how we keep the process going.

Events and products alone aren’t enough, but they are key to the process. Learning is made up of transactions—time-specific exchanges—and relationships—enduring, ongoing interactions.

Lifelong learning is the goal we strive towards and what we must engage in to reach that goal. It’s noun and verb.

These are the five supporting principles of Learning Business Manifesto. If some sound counterintuitive or provocative, good—that’s on purpose.

Manifestos are associated with revolutions, and we think a revolution is needed in lifelong learning to help those of us in learning businesses deliver the full value we can and to help others understand the power—and necessity—of lifelong learning.


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