Transactions vs. Relationships

BY Jeff Cobb

transactions vs relationships - photo of two hands exchanging cedit card through laptop screen

Transactions or Relationships – Which are at the heart of your learning business?

“One and done. That’s the approach most of our education directors take.”

This was the view shared with me by the vice president of a national nonprofit organization recently.

Even more recently, a trade association called me in to talk with its network of education managers about moving away from a “transactional” (my contact’s words) approach to selling training to more of a long-term, needs-based approach.

These are just two examples. The same general theme echoes throughout our work over the past decade: too many organizations approach learning – whether through traditional meetings and seminars or online – as a transaction.

A registration to be processed.

An evaluation to be collected.

And then, a brief pause before starting the process again.

Under this model, building a portfolio of educational offerings becomes a race to create more transactions, rather than to build a value ramp. The result is usually a bunch of disconnected events or products that never really engage the prospective audience deeply. Ongoing success is a matter of luck and numbers more than strategy.

In the world of our Learning Business Maturity Model, this is the world of Static and Reactive organizations.

The flip side is to move away from transactions and focus on relationships. To focus on really knowing the learner’s needs, often better than the learner herself because, well, you know the learner.

Maybe not every single learner individually – that’s usually impossible with a large number of learners.

But you should have relationships with a significant number of them individually. Through e-mail exchanges, through occasional phone conversations, through hallway chats at events, through monitoring and responding to listservs and discussion groups. You get the picture.

And you should constantly be monitoring the data that can tell you more about your learners and help you in building meaningful relationships. (The Market Insight Matrix can help.)

The best subject matter entrepreneurs, or eSMEs, are masters at all of this. It represents a significant advantage they have over most organizations, but there nothing to say that organizations cannot also achieve mastery in this area. Indeed, we feel certain they must if their learning businesses are truly going to thrive over time.

Organizations that focus on relationships fully appreciate that learning is a process, not an event. They take the notion of “lifelong” and the other fifty years seriously and view themselves as being in the career retention business.

In many cases, we find that taking this approach means slowing down, doing less, say “No” to more, and taking the time to figure out what works and what doesn’t – and why.

And, just to be clear that we aren’t simply taking pot shots at others, this is a lesson we ourselves have to return to repeatedly as part of our own learning business. (Which is one reason we do things like After Action Reviews.)

It’s challenging work. Let’s face it, developing relationships over time can be hard, and often messy. Setting up and processing transactions is relatively easy.

But “one and done” is very often just that.


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