Old cash register (Andrés Moreira/flickr)

Inventing by investing in new business models for humanitarian training

Reda SadkiEducation business models, Thinking aloud

Through research and broad sector collaboration, a consensus has emerged on the recognition that uneven quality of personnel is a major limiting factor in humanitarian response, and that serious effort is needed to address the global gap in skills and build capacity of countries and local communities. At the same time, there is growing recognition that existing models for learning, education and training (LET) are not succeeding in addressing this gap, and that new approaches are needed.

Structured learning has long been assumed to be an expenditure and, for a long time, remained unquestioned as a necessary investment. Yet learning advocates increasingly find themselves in a defensive posture, in part due to the complexity involved in correlating education initiatives with measurable outcomes for a cost centre. However, new business models point to education driven by demand that can not only cover its own costs but generate revenue to be reinvested in the organization’s growth. Challenges include transforming cultural norms around trainings and workshops, rethinking the roles of those who earn their livelihoods from such activities, and correctly assessing markets in which those who pay are usually not those who learn.

In a world of knowledge abundance, selling content is an increasingly tough proposition. The objective of market research is no longer to decide which courses to issue. Rather, it is about determining the value of content – to the extent that content adds to a credential of value. In the search for new business models for education, marketing itself may be considered to be a learning function, with the goal of establishing meaningful connections and loyalty with end users through the utilization of learning processes.

The bottom line of humanitarian learning, education and training is still mostly an afterthought. Supply-driven initiatives are launched with donor funding traded for vague promises of sustainability within five years, but no incentives built into the project that will help it get there. Scrambling for alternatives to an existing model in which financing has long been assumed rather than earned may be the toughest challenge of them all for established organizations.

The path of least resistance is to do more of what has been done in the past. In a startling failure of imagination, scaling up resources results in more courses and programmes, more trainings of trainers, more classrooms in shiny new training centres, and more online platforms. Those tasked with spending are then bound to ensure that the metrics will look good, fast enough so that donor support remains unwavering. Yet it is vital for such initiatives to also invest in questioning their own assumptions, starting with those that underpin the business model of a status quo that is unlikely to produce the results that are needed tomorrow, irrespective of the impressive announcements about resources secured today.

Image: Old cash register (Andrés Moreira/flickr)