Why you should care

Using apps, tech startups are trying to break the monopoly of business schools over executive education.

Emmanuel Le Bouille had a training problem. The health program director for Groupe Auchan, an international retail group, had to implement a global well-being course for 260,000 staff members — everyone in the company’s workforce across 12 countries.

“If we had tried to do this through the traditional classroom approach, it would have taken us at least four years,” Le Bouille says.

That was nowhere near fast enough. So Le Bouille turned to a Swiss startup called Coorpacademy, which provided the training via an app that employees downloaded on their smartphones. Within three months, more than half the workforce had completed the course.

“It is not perfection,” Le Bouille says. For example, the retailer was unable to get the Android-based app to work for staff in China because of Beijing’s ban on Google and Google Play apps. Nevertheless, he declares himself a convert to online training, pointing out that the digital option cost 2 euros per employee, a tenth of the amount Auchan would have paid for classroom-based training. “The alternatives to doing this digitally were too expensive and time-consuming,” Le Bouille says.

We are going to be Netflix for the corporate learning market.

Jean-Marc Tassetto, co-founder, Coorpacademy

Tech startups such as Coorpacademy are trying to break into the global corporate education sector, dominated by business schools and this year estimated to be worth $362 billion, according to analysts Training Industry Research. New entrants offer eye-catching alternatives, and are often aimed at younger workers. But they have a long way to go.

Technology research firm Gartner estimates that by 2022, a quarter of all workers will use at least one consumer HR app for development. But the provision of business education online is fragmented, according to Helen Poitevin, Gartner research director. “Too many different parts of an organization buy training and learning platforms,” she says, adding that this means business schools and other classroom providers are likely to dominate the market for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, Jean-Marc Tassetto, who quit as country manager for Google France to co-found Coorpacademy, has big ambitions for his business, which has been trading for five years and has 13.4 million euros in private equity backing. “We are going to be Netflix for the corporate learning market,” he says.

Like the television streaming service, Coorpacademy charges a subscription for open access to its 800,000 teaching packages, available in 19 languages so that they can be shared widely across corporate geographies. There is even an element of “gamification.” Courses are available in “battle mode” so different users can compete for faster completion times and higher scores in tests. This encourages employees to take up staff training, according to Tassetto. “We want to give anyone in the world access to the best courses with the best user interface,” he says.

Edenred, a French provider of employee benefits, is a subscriber. According to Catherine Dardelet, Edenred’s HR manager responsible for talent development, the system allows more employees than before access to training. About 90 percent of the workforce are expected to have trained using Coorpacademy this year, compared with three-quarters undertaking training sessions in a classroom.

Coorpacademy offers an additional service for its customers, allowing them to earn revenue from the platform by reselling their custom-made training to other users. Revenue from this “content factory” is shared equally between the content creator and Coorpacademy.

L’Oreal, for instance, has put its seven selling steps course on the Coorpacademy platform. “They wanted to train a million people linked to L’Oréal, including resellers and hairdressers,” Tassetto says. “We said, ‘Why not open it up worldwide?’”

Another provider is Skillsoft, acquired by Charterhouse Capital Partners in 2014 for an estimated $2 billion. Its courses are offered in 30 languages and the company is focused on health care, financial services, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals sectors.

London-based SmartUp, backed with $5.5 million of venture funding, is another. Like Coorpacademy, SmartUp delivers its training through an app and uses peer-to-peer learning, where employees can test themselves against other users.

SmartUp focuses on large companies, including Aviva, Visa and LVMH, which need to train large numbers of employees quickly. Customers develop their own training, often in skills such as blockchain technology and sales. “You can create pretty much anything on SmartUp, but it is not suited to language training,” says Frank Meehan, co-founder and CEO.

Each of SmartUp’s customers has an average deployment of 1,400 users, and the company has 36,000 paying users a month. Fragmentation in the digital learning market is not a problem, according to SmartUp’s Meehan. “The market is fragmented mainly because it is so large,” he says. “That means a lot of space for everyone.”

JLT Private Client Services, an insurance broker, reluctantly looked into tech-based training after rejecting classroom teaching for its 1,500 employees on cost grounds, says CEO Warren Downey. But the simplicity and flexibility of SmartUp’s smartphone-based training program turned out to be an advantage. “It literally puts training into the hands of everyone in the business,” Downey says.

Since adopting the service last year, JLT has put 200 courses on SmartUp’s platform, from specialist instruction on construction and finance risk to broader topics such as leadership coaching. Courses are turned into a contest, urging participants to learn more than their peers, says Downey. That works well: The company can keep an eye on participation data recorded by the app.

“We launch a module on Monday, and by Friday you can tell that 600 of our people will be comfortable with the concepts,” Downey says.

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By Jonathan Moules

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