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Maybe This Time Your Training or E-Learning Business ISN'T Coming Back!

Sorry to alarm you. But what you are about to read may be the wake-up call you really need. Especially if you're expecting your ailing training or e-learning business to bounce up off the floor like an action hero once the current economic difficulties are over.

It ain't necessarily so.

Tailfins, lindy dancing, green stamps, timeshares - they've all had their day. And now that day is going, or gone - absent nostalgic "retro" initiatives like the Volkswagen "New Beetle."

Transactional analysis, in-basket exercises, cheesecake sales videos, computer literacy - many training topics have had their day, too. And in the unsentimental world of corporate purchase authorities, all the nostalgia in the world isn't going to bring them back.

Could time be running out for your training offerings? Following are four ways that formerly popular course offerings can slip into oblivion.

1. Change in Custody

Sometimes training courses are such a good idea that clients adopt them as their own.

This is especially a risk when the topic reflects on a company's culture and represents a significant litigation exposure. Examples include sexual harassment training, diversity training and values training.

Many of these topics got their start as off-the-shelf courseware. But the only way to stay in the game today is in a consulting and custom development role - which may well pit you against better positioned HR consulting firms.

Loss of custody is also a risk when you offer staples like supervision and basic selling skills that customers incorporate as mainstays in their HRD curriculum. After many years of paying a license fee for the same old content, there's a good chance they'll cut you out by concocting their own version.

Copyright infringement? Tough to prove. Especially if your content consists of common sense platitudes and originated when Nixon was president.

Better to obsolete your content before customers expropriate it. Invest in original research and stay on the cutting edge of today's business issues. Improve your instructional design and delivery, too - but don't expect you can disguise warmed over content with high tech bells and whistles.

2. Overexposure

Overexposure happens when demand for a training topic crashes, not because it's obsolete or faddish, but because expectations got way out of hand.

A shining example is Quality Training.

Interest in Total Quality Management and "continuous process improvement" built to a frenzy a few years back. Even beauty parlors and gas stations were getting into the six sigma, zero defects game.

The result was a sudden bonanza for training companies with a quality offering -- followed by an equally precipitous and ruinous slump.

Other worthy training topics that have been through a period of overexposure include customer service, negotiating, problem solving/decisionmaking, time management and communications skills. Current candidates include team building, project management and possibly 360 assessment.

Overexposure can happen to training delivery methodologies as well. Years ago it was "programmed instruction." More recently it's been "e-learning."

No doubt you're aware that many e-learning companies have recently run into a revenue slump. Why? Not because there's anything fundamentally wrong with e-learning - and not because e-learning is a fad that's going to go away. The problem is simply that e-learning is not the be-all, end-all solution to every training problem that the media pundits and "thought leaders" made it out to be.

So how can you protect yourself from falling victim to an overexposure trap?

  1. If a segment takes off beyond any reason, and you're not already part of it - don't be in any hurry to jump in.
  2. Avoid over-extending your distribution to fringe markets and prospects who are motivated by a need to climb on the bandwagon rather than by genuine need. Once the frenzy is over they will figure out that you have nothing to offer them.
  3. When an overexposed topic comes down to earth, you want to be one of the survivors. One way to make certain of this is to dedicate yourself to being the best in your field.
  4. Don't get yourself panicked by the industry analysts and sages. They trade on hyping the "next big thing" and scaring folks into spending big bucks on conference attendance and consulting fees. When things fall apart, they'll tell you they "saw it coming."

3. Loss of Relevancy

Perhaps the core of your business is a training premise whose time is past. This shouldn't be hard to figure out.

Is your field attracting new entrants? Are your competitors doing reasonably well? Are you winning new top drawer clients? If not, you could be looking at an end game called "Last Man Standing."

One reason training business opportunities dry up for good is a simple crash in demand.

Remember computer literacy training? Once computers got easier to use and consumers became more computer-savvy, this business dried up and went away.

We are now looking at the same phenomenon with desktop applications training. Why? The people who come into the workforce today learn how to use Word and Excl and PowerPoint in school. Plus free PC tutorials now come with many new home computers.

C++, Linux, Java - even cutting edge technical professional topics can become commonplace and loose market viability.

If technology training companies don't stay ahead of the curve, they're doomed to wind up in commodity land.

Another downfall of a few training companies every year are "Training Fads" - ideas that seemed to offer the promise of value, but never really delivered.

Remember "Zero Based Budgeting." Here today, gone tomorrow.

How about sensitivity training, career planning workshops, assertiveness training, adventure training (ropes courses), "styles" training (and all of the other behavioral science gobbledygook courses), management by objectives, transactional analysis training, body language training and stress management training.

If you're in one or another of these segments chances are your business is not going to bounce back from the current period of economic distress.

And here are some currently popular topics that may be candidates for the dustbin of tomorrow: entrepreneurship, self-directed work teams, empowerment, performance management, change management, innovation and creativity.

And what are the survival prospects of the many training firms that are the offspring of a trendy best-selling author? Well, it all depends how well your "new truths" hold up in terms of enduring customer needs.

Consider Dale Carnegie. He wrote his best seller 'How to Win Friends and Influence People" in 1936. His ideas survive just fine today because they help people overcome shyness and fear of speaking in public. This would appear to be a timeless need.

In conclusion, don't be despondent if your training business has taken a hit from the current economic slump. Many high potential training segments loose steam temporarily during an economic downturn.

However, a slumping economy can also disguise fundamental weaknesses in your business and provide you with an excuse not to deal with them. Like every industry, training has its growing edge. Be sure you're on it.

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