Our Customers are Different! The Edge of Knowledge

We often talk about how selling in the Learning & Knowledge industry is different from selling in other industries.

It is not only because our offerings are different, it actually begins with how our customers are different.

The purpose of the L&K industry is to enhance the ability of people to perform more and bigger tasks so that they can make their own industry grow!

We must realize that the customer in this industry (Learning & Knowledge) is usually different from customers of other industries, in several ways.

1.  The first and most significant difference is in the customer’s ability to spec what they want. Because the need being addressed by them has resulted from a lack of knowledge or skill in the first place, the customer themselves do not have the ability to solve the problem by specifying the solution.  Else they would have solved the problem anyway.

This leads to a paradoxical situation.  Where business and management gurus tell us to meet the customer’s requirements, in this case the requirements need to be developed by us, the professionals, to address the needs of our customers.  At best our customers can give us their needs, their preferences, their expectations, and their constraints.  This actually is the highest domain of selling – diagnostic, consultative selling.

2.  The second difference in customers of the learning & knowledge industry is that they also do not know whether the solution we are proposing is going to solve their problem or not.  This challenge emerges because of the unpredictability of human behavior, and the managers’ inability to predict accurately what the result of better trained staff will be, beyond the hope that they will perform better.

3.  The third difference is that customer delight is rarely achieved by the same level of delivery again.  The level of delivery – in terms of content, presentation, insights, creative and critical thoughts presented – needs to keep progressing for our customers to remain consistently delighted.  This is where our industry fails when quality improvement models advocating consistency are implemented, like ISO 9001.  The models are mistakenly interpreted by us to lead towards consistency of delivery, while actually to succeed, we need consistency of customer delight, which is rarely achieved by the same product delivered again.


4.  A fourth difference is that our services are ‘invisible’ to the untrained eye.  It can often be presumed that it is just communication that we build, and how hard is that for someone good with language.  In reality, language is only the medium of the art of instruction.  The art of instruction involves a keen appreciation of the context and motivation of the learners, and then to address their needs and wants with and experience that satisfies them, that brings ‘content’ to the ‘discontent’.  These two necessities require the Instructional Designer to not only be sensitive to the personalities and environment of the learners, but also to the concepts and practices of the domain they will benefit from.  This leads to the art of leading from learning, much beyond the mashing of words to ‘build’ learning material that reads right.

These Perspectives  highlight the need to consult and collaborate with customers, on the identification of the design inputs for the solution as well as on the benefits of the solution once it is implemented.  The professionals servicing the needs have to be experts, with knowledge to add to what the situation demands.

This is the primary reason why selling in the Learning & Knowledge industry is always consultative.  The business that is there to be had without consultancy is low value, competitive, effort-based and routine.  If we consider the Learning & Knowledge industry to involve Creativity, the business that is there to be had without ‘selling’ also will not require very ‘creative’ contribution from the suppliers, and will be far lower in value.

It is only fair to accept that every professional in the industry cannot be an expert at everything to begin with.  But that’s the key – to selling, and to delivering knowledge or skills.  So how do the professionals address this gap?  By making sure they are the fastest learners, they learn faster than the speed at which the situation changes.  They may not be experts to begin with, but with a reasonable and structured approach to learning, they can assimilate expertise faster than anyone else, and then simplify and deliver it to the customer scenario while there is still value to solving the ‘problem’ they want to address.  By the end of a project, the professionals certainly become the experts at the topic, and they take the least time to become such solutioning experts.

This makes it amply evident that the most fundamental skill to hone for professionals in the knowledge industry, is learning.  To learn how to learn is what we become the best at, and this gives us the edge of knowing more, the edge of knowledge.

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Broken Squares – The Game that Made us Whole

The game of Broken Squares amply demonstrates the value of giving.  I first played this game at a Team Training in 1997, conducted by Gagan Adlakha and Arjun Shekhar for the LSB Products team at Essex Farms.

The game goes like this…

The entire group, say 30 people, is split into teams of 5 each, and seated at their own round tables around the room.  Each team is handed five packets (one for each member) of plastic pieces cut from five squares.  When sorted out and put together correctly, they would make five squares that are identical in their dimensions.

Each member opens her/his packet and examines the pieces to see if they fit together to make a square.  The pieces have been distributed across different members so none of the packets complete a square, and people will need to exchange pieces to make their own squares.

The goal of the game:

Each team plays to complete the square with each team member in as little time as possible.  The team that completes all five squares for its team members first is the winner.

The rules of the game:

  1. No one can say anything or gesture in any way to communicate with fellow members.
  2. No one can take or pull a piece from another member, unless s/he gives it to them.
  3. You can give a piece to anyone you like.
  4. You cannot refuse any piece you are given.

The game is played with these rules once, and the timings of each team are shared with everyone.  The facilitator then debriefs the group, for them to share their experience, and what came in the way, what helped them to move faster.  Insights emerge from the teams that took less time to complete, as well as from the others.

Our team won! And as we talked about it during the debrief, it was because of a ‘breakthrough’ in thinking triggered by what one of us did.

To begin with, we were all looking at our own pieces and trying to see whether we ourselves had our perfect square or not.  Of course, none of us did.  So then we would look around our table at other people’s pieces and tried to imagine if they had complete squares (competition!).  Some of us imagined and tried to find those pieces in other people’s pieces that would complete ours.  As soon as we identified those, we would be blocked in doing anything to get those pieces by the rules of the game (Rule 2).  So while we waited for something to happen, we would also look at our pieces and imagine which of the  pieces did we NOT need, and tried to figure out who to give those to, for who they would complete their squares (charity?).  One or two giving of pieces happened where they certainly fit into the other’s jigsaw and the giver was sure they had no use for it, but in general, no one knew what to do.

Until one of us made a bold move!

Ruchika handed me a piece, which I had to take, but which I couldn’t fit into any configuration for my square.  I also observed she had actually broken her square and given a piece that actually she needed to complete her square.  I was wondering why she had given the piece to me when the rules of the game suddenly clicked, and I realized she was signaling to me to give!  I looked at the pieces I already had and gave one to another where it helped him make his square.  I also gave Ruchika’s piece back to her, and hers was as complete as it was before she handed me that piece.

The team quickly caught on to the convention.  Give, so that the other may give.  Give with the trust that if you really need something, it’ll come back to you for the other will give it to you.

As this convention crystallized and dawned on us around the table, we began to frantically give, watching more for what others needed and could benefit from, than trying to hold on to the incompleteness with our own pieces.  I suddenly realized I had four people caring for my completeness instead of just me being focused on myself alone.  In no time we had all five squares complete.

This became a turning point in the lives of many of us that day.