No one—individual or organization—works in a vacuum. Employees, departments, and companies work with suppliers, partners, and customers. If everyone in this “extended enterprise” is in agreement about goals and processes, business workflows will be smoother. That’s where the concept of extended-enterprise learning comes in: Training improves performance of individual workers, small teams, and large departments. Extended-enterprise eLearning applies the same logic to a larger ecosystem, with the goal of enhancing understanding of products and services throughout the extended-enterprise network.

Extended-enterprise learning takes corporate eLearning and performance support outside the boundaries of a company or organization. This is a natural—and perhaps inevitable—extension of the digital learning paradigm. Digital learning recognizes that individuals have similar behaviors and expectations as consumers, citizens—and corporate learners. A central element of this paradigm is a shift to learner-controlled or “self-service” learning: Tools and information that individuals seek out and use on demand to solve problems and answer questions. The extended enterprise recognizes that these behaviors extend to individuals at partner organizations, suppliers, contractors, and clients or customers.

The digital learning paradigm is important for another reason: It makes extended-enterprise learning feasible. As corporate training departments develop forms of training and performance support that mesh with digital learners’ expectations, they are creating mobile, portable, focused tools that can easily extend beyond the (virtual) walls of the company office.

Who’s in, who’s out

Every organization’s extended enterprise will look different. Some networks will include large numbers of suppliers; others might be more of a team consisting of collaborating companies that work toward a shared goal. Some organizations’ customers are individual consumers, while others’ are companies or government entities. Deciding who makes up an extended enterprise, then determining which of those entities could benefit from training, are crucial initial steps in envisioning and implementing extended-enterprise learning.

Justifying extended enterprise training

Implementing extended-enterprise learning might appear daunting. Before diving in, it’s a good idea to examine the goals and evaluate the business case. Here’s where the digital learning approach is most helpful: Much of the eLearning and performance support aimed at employees could serve other members of the extended enterprise with little or no modification.

An example of eLearning that could begin with employees and extend to customers might be sales training. Sales personnel need to learn the features of new products and services; they might also need training on how to use new machinery they are selling. There’s clear potential for overlap with marketing and advertising. For example, an automaker might train showroom sales personnel in the advanced features of their new-model cars, perhaps even creating a VR-based simulation. Offering that simulation to the team at the ad agency seems like a natural extension of learning; after all, if they’ve experienced the new features, they can create more compelling ads.

A simpler example might be an interactive catalog that supports mobile sales reps. They can easily review the features of a product, using their mobile device, before entering a sales meeting. This type of performance support tool is increasingly common, as deskless employees in a variety of industries seek on-demand information or instruction. A compelling argument for extended enterprise eLearning is that sharing the information in mobile tools with potential customers could help them make informed purchasing choices and could inspire deeper brand loyalty; suppliers, too, could benefit from a fuller understanding of the end product their parts or services help create.

It works in the reverse as well: Lowe’s home improvement stores launched VR-based training clinics in several stores in 2017. These clinics were designed to teach store customers how to do tasks, like replacing bathroom tile, for which those customers could then purchase supplies in-store. The successful initiative could have stopped there—but Lowe’s employees found that completing the training enabled them to serve customers better. They had a deeper understanding of what the customers would be doing, which allowed them to offer better advice on selecting supplies and tools. According to MediaPost, Lowe’s plans to extend the employee training, adding training on additional types of equipment.

Moving eLearning and performance support beyond a single team or organization to an extended enterprise could solidify branding and even drive growth. If vendors, customers, and employees have the same expectations and information about a company’s values and priorities, they can collaborate more fully—and overall performance could improve.

Improved training

Extending eLearning to vendors, customers, and partners could have an unexpected benefit: better training. Although employees might be required to complete training, the eLearning has to be engaging and attractive to entice customers or vendors to interact with it. If learning and development teams shift from a mindset of “delivering” training to a “captive” audience to creating eLearning tools that learners will seek out voluntarily, everyone’s user experience is likely to improve. This too feeds the digital learning paradigm—which emphasizes content that is engaging, easily available, mobile, and, most likely short and focused. As more training moves out of corporate LMSs and onto employees’ personal mobile devices, offering extended enterprise eLearning to larger audiences is easier than ever.