The Case for Custom Learning

I have had the distinct honor of helping to design, develop and deliver over 200 custom leadership development projects during my career. That doesn’t mean I know everything about custom work (by any stretch of the imagination) but should serve as evidence that I have at least “been in the arena enough” to offer an informed perspective.

The overwhelming majority of the projects I have had direct experience with were with customers I would describe as creative, forward-thinking, learning professionals. They knew exactly what they wanted and did an outstanding job of getting what was in their head into mine.

By the same token, several of these opportunities were initiated with customers who not only didn’t really know what they wanted, they had a comparatively limited appreciation for the process that needed to be employed to produce a quality custom offering. In retrospect, I could have done a much better job working with those customers to let them know what they were getting into as opposed to diving in under the umbrella of responsiveness, then struggling to deliver on time and within the allocated budget.

Building customized learning in my mind is akin to custom home building. I remember being on the receiving end of this question on several occasions: How much does a custom leadership training program cost?

I got to the point where I would counter by asking this: How much does a house cost?

That response undoubtedly wasn’t well-received by all, but I do think it “cut to the chase” when you are considering the cost of custom anything. It depends!

  • What kind of square footage are you looking at?
  • What kind of bathroom fixtures are we talking about?
  • … countertops?
  • , etc., etc.!

I have recent experience that I believe (or at least hope!) is relevant here. I had occasion to visit some lifelong friends a couple weeks back who have retired and built a custom home. Suffice to say this is the nicest crib I have ever set foot in—everything is absolutely perfect! They are active (golfing, biking, fitness), have friends show up and stay on a regular basis (I invited myself—and it worked!), have extended family convene for large holidays and have mastered gourmet cooking (and eating!) and so much more. The house is designed with all of that front of mind.

And, when this couple gives you a tour of their place, the first thing you notice is how informed each of them is on absolutely everything. They are informed in large part because they worked side-by-side with the architect and construction crew for the better part of two years on the build. That build (as I understand it) was projected to be 15 months, but we all know how that goes (especially if your build takes place during a global pandemic)! I have no idea what this place cost, but I can tell you based on personal observation that every objective associated with the vision for construction was achieved or exceeded, and there is evidence of that value on full display every day.

So, what are a few points of tangible consideration from all this? Developing custom learning:

  1. Costs more! If you are in the market for a house, there is always one for sale in the general neighborhood you want to live. If you seek to initiate leadership development at your organization, there any number of off-the-shelf offerings you can choose from.
  2. Takes longer! Stuff happens! Builders can’t predict the weather six months from now, and even the most seasoned internal learning professionals can’t predict all the changes that will impact a six-month schedule of development with an external partner.
  3. You get exactly what you want! Custom home buyers that stay involved with the process get a perfect place to live their lives. Organizations get personalized learning journeys for employees that drive productivity, enhance engagement and support the retention of key talent.

Given those givens, if you are considering the development of a custom learning curriculum, think about making your business case around the following:

  1. Investment: What would it be worth to your organization to tangibly reduce turnover of high-potential employees? Or be able to promote ready frontline supervisors into their first people-management positions instead of having to rely on outside hires? Or perhaps substantially increase employee engagement? You pay more for custom development because custom developed learning tangibly helps combat these kinds of challenges.
  2. Demonstrated impact: The objectives of custom learning are tied directly to the business goals and priorities of the organization. The training is designed with tangible outcomes in mind. And those outcomes are not left to chance. The learning cascades its way through the organization. Learners aren’t left on their own post-training to “figure it out.” Learners going through custom training meet with their managers before training to develop a personalized plan focused on behavior change and increased productivity. It’s not the learning that matters—it’s the results that flow directly from what is learned.
  3. Building a testament to your organization’s values: Custom learning is a tribute of sorts to the standards, principles, ideals and beliefs of the organization. In that regard, high-quality custom learning is not something the CEO and other visible executives sign off on and forget about. It is something top management stays close to during the build and actively reinforces when the build has been completed.