2023/24 study

The evolution of managed learning

This study focuses on how businesses and providers approached managed learning in 2023, what it looks like and is expected to deliver, and the manner in which it is evolving in 2024 and beyond.

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At its core, managed learning involves an external partner taking on the contracted management and/or responsibility for one or more activities of the L&D function. The scope is wide: it can range from helping to craft learning strategies or programmes, to being a trusted advisor, or managing vendors and training delivery. 

Increasingly client demand for this type of learning outsourcing is centred around partnership, innovation, flexibility and dynamism, despite variance in how businesses engage with providers. This is driven by fast-evolving organisational needs.

Delivery expectations are also a critical part of this outsourcing. Here, universal provision (from consultation and strategy formulation to management of learning and vendors, as well as operations and delivery), flexibility, and next-generation thinking are all valued. A provider’s ability to understand and personalise service delivery for a client is also sought after, as is their ability to align and integrate with the client organisation.

To reach this level of market understanding, our qualitative research study involved 10 organisations, ranging from UK-based companies to those with an international presence, and included those with deep learning market expertise. We are very grateful to those who shared their experiences in confidence. The participants, their organisations and the learning providers they use will remain anonymous.

When engaging with those who outsourced learning, the overarching aim of the study was to examine the range of services provided by managed learning providers. As such, we looked at: 

  • Where in the learning cycle managed learning services are used and what that looks like (as well as, where, geographically, managed learning occurs); 
  • How business disruption, of the 2020s especially, has changed patterns of learning outsourcing;
  • The drivers for use of managed learning services;
  • The challenges managed learning creates and how to mitigate or control these;
  • The benefits managed learning delivers, and what a makes for a good managed learning provider.

This report summarises our key findings. A similar study was conducted in 2018 so we also track what has evolved since then and assess what the future holds for managed learning. 


The evolution of the use of managed learning

In both 2018 and, prior to that in 2015, we surveyed the managed learning market. Eight years ago clients were largely turning to managed learning providers to cut costs, deliver generic programmes, do the administration of learning and manage suppliers. Outsourcing was fairly evenly balanced with in-house provision. 

However, years of in-house L&D downsizing meant that by 2018 outsourcing was more prevalent across the whole learning lifecycle. Some organisations even relied on managed learning providers to deliver the whole learning operation. The business-provider relationship had also deepened with employers looking to outsource consultation, globally scale learning operations, and understand how to move learning forward with the use of digital provision and data. 

Indeed, a comparison of results from our last two surveys shows that despite cost being of top importance to employers the provider-client relationship was evolving past being solely transactional.  By 2018, having a trusted deeply integrated outsourcing partner was seen as critical and businesses valued access to a wide range of outsourcing services, in a flexible manner, that delivered sustainable business improvements. By this time, the focus was on optimising everything from the learner experience to delivering for the business in a relationship that lasted and where communication was at the centre.


Managed learning in 2024

Fast forward to 2024 and the learning and development landscape has changed once more. The pandemic emphasised L&D’s importance with organisations turning to the function to deliver newly business-critical skills in an increasingly digital manner. With a better understanding of how L&D can deliver on the wider talent and organisational agendas, and with ongoing challenges to the status quo in skills acquisition and business-as-usual, pressure on the function has ramped up.

Indeed, CIPD’s 2023 Learning at Work report found that over half (53%) of L&D functions are experiencing a growth in workload with widespread concerns about how to provide digital solutions, learning evaluation, learning strategy direction and effective design and delivery of learning. Learning is now widely considered part of the talent strategy — to attract, retain and engage workers — as well as an increasingly central part of ESG foci. Both in giving employees skills to support business delivery in these much-focussed-on areas, but also a central part of delivering on the ‘S’ social: supporting employees in their development and reaching their potential. 

In such a landscape, it's not surprising that the overwhelming majority of study participants are outsourcing more than they were five years ago as well as widening the scope of what they need from providers. Turbocharged by the pandemic, employers are regularly turning to managed learning for strategy consultation and creation, training course and content library access, vendor management, learning evaluation activities, access to (and deployment of) learning technology as well as programme design and delivery. 

There is also evidence of learning functions asking providers for advice on how to deploy new learning platforms, move towards digital models, and for insight into new learning and market trends. Providers are also being asked to deliver globally, help with service procurement and take on legal liability.

It’s not all one-way traffic, though. Our survey also shows a balance of in-house and outsourcing learning provision still exists  — with some employers wanting to ensure they retain learning practitioner skills they perceive to be business critical. Either that or they have a centralised operating model or simply want to ensure oversight over at least some learning activities.

That being true, with resource pressure on L&D, it’s clear that managed learning is seen as a way to build capacity. As such, half of respondents stated they were outsourcing at least some part of all learning activity with many having a flexible hybrid model i.e. increasing the reliance on outsourcing when they need it.

Extending the services

What’s new since 2018 is that managed learning providers are increasingly being asked to:

  • Consult, evaluate and strategise: giving market insight and a view of next-generation learning trends in a partnership-style relationship to deliver for the business.
  • Provide access to an ever-widening scope of training courses, content library and skill development needs. In turn, these deliver for other important areas in the business such as commercial, HR, talent, and ESG strategies.
  • Assist the needed transformation towards next-generation digital learning to provide future-ready skills in an engaging manner — including L&D function transformation, access to LXPs, and new virtual and hybrid delivery models.
  • Deliver on clients’ expanding learning needs: in an increasingly disrupted world, organisations need learning programme delivery suited to multiple contexts (F2F, hybrid, remote) and for this learning to be accessible in the flow of work and deliver the latest skills needed for fast-evolving business challenges. This learning also needs to deliver for the talent management strategy (recruitment, retention, engagement) and adapt to in-house resource levels. As such, managed service providers need to be able to provide increasingly diverse services as well as adapt to service delivery expectations.

Where does MLS occur?

Half a decade ago, the UK and the USA were the markets where learning outsourcing most frequently happened. On either side of the Atlantic, organisations were turned to providers for cost effectiveness, to mitigate the impact of shrinking teams and for help with global scaling, and to access digital and data facilities. Elsewhere, in European countries, there was still concern about the impact of outsourcing many learning operations.

This had changed by 2024 with outsourcing more widely used regardless of location. Of the survey participants who worked in a business with a multi-location global presence, all described turning to managed learning providers for at least some learning function activity. This suggests that as employers have experienced the positive impact of long-term, culturally aligned, integrated partnerships that deliver for the business, the need for global outsourcing of learning, as well as the market for it, has grown since we last checked. 

However, there was variance in how this multi-location approach to outsourcing worked. Some businesses enter into agreements to access global provision or economies of scale. Some to deliver consistent learning experiences across multiple sites or easily access local vendors. Indeed, one global organisation also told us they use a centralised outsourcing agreement which means the same elements of learning are outsourced, from logistics to delivery, wherever they have operations.

Elsewhere, multiple participants mentioned they worked with providers who could flex to localised learning needs. They put out requests for proposals (RFPs) with vendors who can tailor services to localised needs or skills requirements specific to a certain hub. Yet, these businesses would still expect vendor management from a centralised provider. 

Continue reading

  • The changing focus of managed learning
  • How are managed learning providers chosen?
  • The 9 benefits of managed learning
  • What to consider in MLS partnership
  • The future of MLS
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