Krishna Kumar founded Simplilearn in 2010, now one of the largest players in delivering certification training for professionals in the digital economy. Krishna recently sat down for an interview and shared some insights about learning and development, how it’s evolved over the past decade, and particularly what Simplilearn has done to improve online training courses.
Q. Blended learning is a term we're hearing a lot these days in L&D. What makes blended learning different from other methods of skill training?
A: First, let me tell you that blended learning as a concept existed for a long time and what it meant originally was that blending physical classroom training with online video-based learning. This is a model that has existed for a long time.
What Simplilearn is doing different is that we are letting our users experience blended learning completely online. What that means is that with any course that you take on Simplilearn, you can not only follow along on video at any time, but you can also go online to learn from live, world-class instructors who help you understand the topic. In those classes, our students can interact not only with instructors but also with other students who are taking the same course. What we have built is a classroom learning experience online.
Our courses are also very interactive and have a lot of hands-on elements built into them. We also understand that if you are working on a hands-on project, you may still get stuck, and that's why we have included the support of 24/7 teaching assistants. Thanks to this interaction, our courses provide much higher engagement and completion rates compared to some of our peers in the skills training business.
Thanks to the live element as well as the support element, any student who takes up a course online — even sitting alone at home or in the office, or some remote place — doesn't feel left alone. There’s always somebody to help them.
The reason MOOCs (massive open online courses) didn't work as well was that learning is not about just having books. You also need someone who can teach that book. That's why we, as human beings, built a lot of schools colleges to let people learn from each other, to provide some learning environment where everybody is going towards the same goal. That’s the same concept we implemented at Simplilearn.
Q: There's been a lot of talk about the importance of building a learning culture in an organization. What does that mean and how can organizations foster this?
A: Most organizations today are trying to become learning organizations. That’s because the world is moving so fast, organizations know that if you don't learn, you'll be left behind. Think about how many Fortune 500 companies existed many years back that continued to be on the list year after year. Today you'll see that the number of repeatedly-listed companies is shrinking. The shelf life of a Fortune 500 company used to be 30 40 years. It has now dropped to ten years because there are new players coming in and getting onto that list.
To build a learning culture, I think there are various components to it. Many organizations provide all kinds of learning resources to employees and expect employees to learn on their own. I think that alone is not sufficient to build a learning organization. That's similar to the MOOC standard, like just giving people a book.
You can lead an employee to a book, but you can't make them learn. I think the one thing organizations can that would help them become a learning organization is for them to reward learning behavior.
If organizations start rewarding employees who were learning and demonstrating what they learned within the organization, I think that will go a long way in building a learning culture.
Q. What kind of rewards do companies find successful in enhancing learning?
A: There are there are multiple things that organizations can do. It can be as little as making learning as part of their employee performance reviews, so people know that if they want to get appraised well and get any raise or promotion, the time that they spend on learning will be recognized. If someone learns a new skill, giving them preference in advancement to new roles compared to hiring people from outside, that's also a kind of reward because we are giving them a high profile internal role rather than offering it to somebody from outside.
Q: Krishna, a couple of years ago you directed Simplilearn to adopt an NPS (that's a Net Promoter Score) metric as a top-down measurement approach, from managers to the frontline instructors, and looking at NPS daily connected to every business problem all the way down to customer experience. What drove you to focus on NPS — which is a somewhat rare measurement for training — and what have been the results?
A: Firstly, we have a strong belief at Simplilearn that what you measure is what you get. So if something matters to you, if you don't measure it, you will never achieve that goal. We really wanted to measure our customer satisfaction, and NPS is a great way of measuring whether our customers like our product or not.
We started measuring NPS at every interaction with our customers, from when our customers were in our instructor-led classes, to when customers were asking for any help from our support personnel. We also started broadcasting these NPS results with everybody who matters within Simplilearn. And guess what: within a matter of a few months our NPS became closer to 50, then it went to 60, and today it hovers around 75. That’s the highest that you could ever imagine getting on NPS. Even some customer-obsessed companies like Amazon have their NPS in the range of 60s, so it's a really very high standard to reach. We're really proud of it.
At the same time, I also want to say that we have moved away from measuring NPS to measuring something else now. By measuring NPS for so many years, we have already got that our customers only like our product. But what we now measure these days are the outcomes gained by customers who successfully completed our courses. Does it mean they are getting a new role or getting any raise in their current organization? We have started focusing on measuring those kinds of real outcomes as metrics now.
Q: What are the typical outcomes that people get as employees besides certification?
A: NPS, measuring how customers like our product, is more like a hygiene metric that they bought the course, we delivered the course, and they liked the course. Basically, it’s how the learners feel about the course. It doesn't necessarily talk about the quality or whether they learned anything. So we've changed to go beyond that, so it isn't just about whether they like Simplilearn or the instructors, but whether they applied that learning to their job, which is a tangible outcome.
There are different outcomes that we are trying to measure. For example, did they get a new role within their current organization or get a raise. Many of these large organizations have a lot of internal openings, and they're always looking at hiring. If by taking our course, a student can apply for that role and it’s something they always wanted to do, if they get selected to fill that role, that's a success for us. There are students who come and say that they were working on a project, but they lacked skill, and after going through our course they were successful in applying those skills to their current project; that's a success for us. There are students who say, “After doing this course, my, peers recognize me as an expert, and they come to me for suggestions on how things should be done.” That's a success for us. So started measuring this kind of metric as our success compared to just measuring the hygiene metric of NPS.
Q: How does Simplilearn go about measuring or collecting those outcomes, since they’re usually after the fact?
A: What we are doing is that every six months we run a survey with our students who have successfully completed a course and we ask, “How was that course beneficial to you? Did it help you get a new role? Did it help you get a raise? Did it help you become better in the area that you work or did it help you get recognized as an expert within your organization?”
Based on the survey response, we start sharing the data internally as well as externally.
Q: What's on the road ahead for Simplilearn?
A: Right now, Simpliearn is focused on helping people find a career in digital industries. Anyone who wants to get into a digital industry or who are already working in the digital industry but wants to fast track their growth, we are the right partner for them now. What we're currently focused on is how we can make it easier and easier for our students. We already provide interactive training online with a live online classroom experience. Now our current focus is on how our technology platform and our courses can become better and, specifically, more and more practical.
In a nutshell, we are trying to become better at what we already do. It isn’t a matter of simply adding new courses. We actually go through and revamp existing courses, particularly the more popular ones, to keep them current. The digital economy is changing all the time, so we go through the continual process of keeping our learning programs up-to-date. That's our key product promise, so there's an entire team that makes sure that our catalog is always up-to-date. This should be no surprise. However, what we are even more focused on is how do we make our courses not only up-to-date, but more relevant to what industry wants. We strive to make industry partners endorse our courses, so our students walk away with more industry logos on their resume.
Q: What advice do you have for corporate-led professionals about outsourcing employee training or integrating vendors and so their current systems?
A: Organizations should be open to new ideas. For a long time, L&D professionals though thought about online training as one way of learning and physical classroom training as another way of learning. Within the last couple of years, online technology has become so good that most employees are quite used to interacting with their colleagues from different parts of the world online. So you should consider a model like Simplilearn, which is a combination of video training, live instruction, and hands-on projects.