Thought Industries and Claire Schooley Consulting have published the 2020 State of Customer Training Report, written by Thought Industries CEO Barry Kelly and Claire Schooley, former lead learning analyst at Forrester.

Customer training is a vital part of keeping an organization healthy and growing, and that segment of training is particularly challenged during the pandemic. I asked Barry for his thoughts on this, and on what businesses need to be doing now in preparation for exiting the current crisis.

Bill Brandon: I'm wondering how COVID-19 is affecting customer training activity.

Barry Kelly: It's interesting. I think there's probably some very similar things happening that you're seeing across the board in many organizations who are pivoting from delivering training in person. There's certainly organizations that have been doing customer training at scale for a long time and probably a significant portion of the training was being done in person—especially large enterprise software companies or large manufacturers or organizations that are dealing in training individuals and have huge numbers of physical products or commercial products.

If you think across the board then you think about organizations that had to turn up on site and train individuals, whether it's point of purchase technology, equipment being used for communications or law enforcement, or healthcare technology platforms and devices. I think the entire industry had to essentially overnight figure out how to transform that particular method and how do they turn that very quickly into something digital in the entire world, had to figure out how to work from home, and to send organizations remote. At the same time, they had to figure out how to create events that were either in-person training or that were particular events or information sharing events and turn them virtual.

So I would say what we're working on with a lot of our customers is sort of a two-step process. One is like, "Okay, what do we do right now, in terms of, you know, virtualizing any sort of in-person training: What does that look like, what's that experience like?" And I think the other thing that we're seeing right now is organizations kind of reflecting on the longer term, the bigger picture. Not for why they had to put a bandaid on, maybe some parts are realigning in terms of how to fulfill the obligation to deliver in-person trainings. I think they're also thinking about what the future looks like. What does learning and training delivery diversification look like, either completely without an in-person component, or at least with heavily reduced volume of in-person, or in-person in a completely different way? That's one of the things I think has been the main talking point from what we're seeing. Just to support that, I think we're seeing incredible creativity and resilience from organizations as they're transforming content to self-paced content. Teams are turning experiences around. We've been speaking with organizations that are taking events—like large regional conferences or large flagship annual conferences—and transforming them into virtual experiences very quickly. I think what I'm saying is, it's just incredible. Organizations are doing an incredible job and the training organizations are working to transform our business very quickly.

BB: Has the volume of customer training dropped off in the last six weeks or so?

BK: I would say just by virtue of the in-person components disappearing from the offerings. Just look at the overall catalog of offerings that the organizations would be delivering upon, you're seeing a reduction in that. Essentially it was an on/off switch in in-person events, overnight.

Transforming, some organizations (and this is totally anecdotal, we don't have data on this because it's happened so quickly) are finding that they're able to essentially pivot to the virtual component. They are probably not getting a full 100 percent. Cohorts are probably seeing a slightly smaller number of individuals engaged right now in the virtual component. But that's just the nature of the world. People's jobs have been disrupted. There's individuals that probably would have been trained before where now they've been furloughed or not working, or are not working in the same way that they were before. I would say there's been, just because of that alone, there's probably been a slight reduction. I think what it's done is, it's been an important and powerful function to help organizations think about the diversity and the content, how well-covered are they on self-paced and asynchronous content in their customer training program. I think a lot of them are thinking about how they do that. As the world starts to come back online I think we'll start to see a backlog of individuals who need to be trained and a whole bunch of new people that are adopting new technologies, new approaches. A lot of people are going to have to be trained while the entire globe is working its way through what is an uncertain period. You know I think overall, the future in this particular area, the short term future and beyond, is pretty incredible for organizations. More and more people are going to need to be trained on how to operate professionally in the new world.

BB: What do you see as the essential things that an organization needs to be doing now, to be prepared for customer training, let's say, in the fourth quarter of this year, or whenever we have come out from under this cloud.

BK: I think the focus on the time frame is good because at least it talks about the pragmatic approach for organizations today and the way they're thinking about it, and things that are actually possible to implement by year-end. Which I think is important because having focus now is particularly important for organizations in the customer training landscape..

The first step is making a powerful decision and some of them have already done this, about what your virtual delivery technology is going to be and how you're going to take any in-person events and just transform them into a virtual experience. You may look at them and say, okay, you know, the 20 events we had, we only really need to do 10. And we're going to virtualize these 10, and here's our format. Come up with what you think is an effective delivery format for that: technology, deliver, fail fast, make decisions, keep your organization engaged, and your customers engaged, and programs out there. Fail fast on it, learn what you need, and keep those coming.

I think, in parallel, organizations should be thinking about self-paced content and training experiences. Basically, asynchronous learning, whether those be courses, the lighter videos and short format content, building your suites. You’ve got to think that you should be able to do as much good with the core content, the core personas and your technology and the core life cycle needs that your customers have. Create a self-paced or asynchronous content for those individuals so that everybody can be trained, whether or not they can turn up for events or go to events. I think that's gonna be important to spend time thinking about what that experience is and what the breakdown of that product experience is.

Also continue to measure that so building learning pathways or persona-based pathways of learning, giving people more options to learn and be trained in different ways. Maybe blended between, you know, self-paced and virtual events, experiments with microlearning and short format learning as well, where individuals can solve problems quickly with quick hit training experiences. Also think of other ways for those individuals that are offering certification programs, being able to fulfill those programs with that mixture of their virtual or self-paced learning that they can use. I think those are pretty effective ways to think about the remainder of 2020.

Beyond 2020, there's an opportunity to think about how the training organization itself is built and configured—what are the workflows for content creation and training creation? And how does that differ today than it has been in the past where you may have trainers turning up to office buildings or to conference halls?

BB: This will probably go on well into 2021 and beyond.

BK: Absolutely agree. You know that things that have been really important to us as a company is we understand that everybody has had to make a very quick pivot, and we're trying to help them make quick, short-term decisions in order to be able to sort of keep the business moving and keep meeting the objectives of training in the in the current climate. I also stress that at the time of reflection what we've been doing as a company has really been talking about content to training diversification, and customers have been coming to us for years already on that journey. We’re just seeing a lot of them get to complete that journey much quicker, in a much more abbreviated fashion than they thought they had to before.

I hope everybody uses this as a time of reflection and truly thinks about how and what they're creating. Organizations are going to have to think a little bit more creatively, or they're just going to put that trainer in front of the camera and then stream and press play. We have to think way beyond that in order to have the sense of outcomes that are important, rather than hoping that's what the industry does. I hope we see this as a time of creativity. It's a time that accelerates asynchronous and digital learning and you know that I believe strongly we're going to see some really great learning and training and product experiences come out of all of this. It’s fascinating from that standpoint.