A business partner of mine who had owned a construction company once asked me why national associations would pay for Web Courseworks consultants to help them explore expanding their eLearning learning offerings. My partner’s first inclination was to ask why can’t they do new market exploration themselves? At the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer him. Perhaps now after spending years helping communities of practice start online learning businesses and expand eLearning products for their members, I can answer the question—or at least “the why and how”.
Why are online learning business consultants hired and what value should they provide? I hope this post begins to answer those questions by giving you a few lessons from my personal experience proving value to national associations.
One of my mentors, Elaine Biech, author of The New Business of Consulting: The Basics and Beyond, has written extensively to help consultants provide value to clients. Her short list to help answer “the why” includes:
- The organization perceives a lack of internal expertise. This is especially the case when it comes to implementing new technologies, like online learning or entering new markets.
- The current staff is at capacity. Association staff often wear several hats and are understaffed. In these cases, the board of directors brings in an expert to advise on future directions, including adding more FTEs.
- Consultants are brought in to “cross-pollinate”. Often the consultants have experience working with similar organizations and can simulate new directions in a collaborative fashion
- Consultants can be faster and more efficient than using internal resources—making it a highly visible project helps get it done
- A consultant can provide an assessment of the current ability to deploy and improve the chance of successfully implementing an online learning initiative.
Elaine Biech also lists compliance issues, conflict resolution, and others as reasons to hire an outside consultant.
A good consultant brings a methodology that contributes to staff collaboration and consensus.
Here are my top ten methods an online learning business consultant should have in coordination with your staff deliver:
1. Agree on the goals of the consultant engagement
Believe it, often both the consultant and the organization start out with little idea of what the consultant should be doing and delivering. Defining the engagement with goals will help to clarify the mission.
2. Interviews should take place with all stakeholders: program managers and staff who execute programs, information technology players, and especially association members
I had a client’s staff member say to me, “here I go again educating and giving free ideas to another consultant!” It is the true staff that end users provide the consultant with rich material on which to reach new conclusions and to understand attitudes, and interpersonal power structures within the organization. Many times, it takes an outsider to “put it all together” for an organization already rich in talent.
3. Personas of the types of learners or end consumers of the program should be defined along with product topics
When considering an online learning business initiative, it is important to define the end consumer of the material. Content topics come in different levels of sophistication. Creating a detailed picture of what the group is contemplating building is important. At Web Courseworks we often create a video to prototype the end state so contributors get on the same page.
4. Data collection and Ideation sessions should be analyzed and held to explore wild new approaches
We like to collect as much information from our clients as they will provide. Current and old strategic plans, for example, should help guide the consultant. Content topic data from annual meeting presentations should be analyzed for trends and chance of future success. Conducting a Zoom session with stakeholders and outside experts using a collaboration tool like JAM can spur new ideas and produce new team momentum towards success.
5. Review of the competition and pricing schemes
There is always someone else trying to go to market, often at different stages, with the same offering. Reviewing the choices, the market is providing your member/learners to provide insights on buyer motivation, willingness to pay, and marketing ideas.
6. Review technology solutions that include content formats and systems in an unbiased way
When it comes to online education products it is important to discover new content formats that will excite the market. Sometimes, old ideas like a monthly podcast, using YouTube for marketing trailers, and website landing pages can help bring a new online business together. New platforms can also provide sizzle to old content.
7. Conduct regular member committee meetings and focus groups to test prototypes
Prototypes provide a disciple way of gathering input from stakeholders. A member committee or task force will not only help provide feedback but should also contribute by identifying additional experts that need to be involved for success.
8. Financial proformas (the what-ifs) should be collaboratively explored
Financial modeling is more of an art than a science. Just get started by defining how much income the new initiative will bring in over the next five years and compare this with the expense to build and sustain the online learning business.
9. An iterative approach with phases and interim reports delivered along the way provides learning experiences and refinement for those involved
A report provided at the end of the engagement without iterative feedback along the way could very likely miss the mark. Interim reports (a phased approach) help create a feedback loop that enhances hitting all goals of the consulting initiative.
10. Ultimately a good consultant should provide a short list of immediate actions steps
Consultants are under pressure to provide value. Typically, consultants rely heavily on referrals provided by past clients. A consultant should ask you to measure their performance and to request feedback if you have not provided it. One of the best ways a consultant provides value is by summarizing their findings in reports. Interim reports are used to ensure the consultant is on the right track. Often a consultant will present to executives or the board using a PowerPoint deck that summarizes the engagement.
People, like my business partner, will always question the value and expense of hiring an outside individual to consult. It can be intimidating, and it may expose the need for change. The ultimate “report card” of this decision to hire an outside consultant will be whether the organization makes changes or takes action steps toward future directions.