Learning & Development Blog

custom eLearning development vs off the shelf

Custom vs. Off The Shelf Training: Which Should You Choose?

You've finally completed your training needs assessment and have discovered your salespeople need training on effective negotiation skills. You're familiar with off the shelf training courses for sales teams and wonder whether general training on sales closing techniques would be suitable. Or, is custom training the route to take?  

On the surface, sales, along with training topics like leadership or negotiation, seem like general subjects that require common competencies across companies and even industries. And indeed, some universal skills must be learned and mastered in these areas—asking the right questions, actively listening, giving constructive feedback—to name a few.

Off-the-shelf programs will cover those competencies, and help to develop a learner’s capability—to a point. An off-the-shelf training course on Negotiation, for example, might contain an activity where you practice listening and paraphrasing what you've heard with a generic scenario about a generic employee of a generic company. The company might not be in your industry, and the employee might not be a realistic role for your department, but you’re practicing the skill regardless. You get the practice, but not in a real-life scenario. You’re left to transfer that content to your role at your company.

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Here's another example. An off-the-shelf course such as Leadership: Building Successful Teams, or something similar, might cover topics such as why teamwork is essential, skills for motivating team members, and strategies for coping with challenges. You would likely buy into the general concepts immediately, but would not have the opportunity to integrate your company’s core values.

Building real working proficiency of even general competencies depends on opportunities to learn or practice a skill in the context of actual work. That’s where customization comes in.

A custom elearning module on Effective Feedback would present content and activities within the context of real-life scenarios. Ideally, you would bring to the table an actual employee situation that you’re working with, so you can prepare for that exact scenario and conversation. During an in-person learning event, you could also practice with immediate coaching from an expert who understands your company’s culture and challenges.

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A custom course on Building Successful Teams would provide opportunities for leaders to tackle actual day-in-the-life problems and give leaders needed time to focus on solutions, all while developing, enhancing, and practicing fundamental leadership skills. The benefits of custom leadership learning are vast. In tackling actual problems during leadership training, companies build trusting cross-functional relationships that transfer to the workplace and, occasionally, uncover and resolve leadership alignment issues.

The shift from off-the-shelf to custom training comes at a time when companies are focused on developing their talent more than ever. In today’s commoditized economy, a company’s culture and people are significant differentiators. Custom learning programs provide the perfect opportunity to define and build differentiation, as well as engage and support the most critical asset—its people.

And, here’s a little secret. The customization process has a surprise outcome: the opportunity to capture the tips and tricks of high-performing employees and share those across the organization. Knowledge sharing is one of the best talent management approaches for building a high-performing workforce.

It’s true. Sometimes an off-the-shelf program is precisely what you might need for foundational purposes. If speed of implementation is the priority, you purchase the off-the-shelf. As you know, that often means just checking the box. And sometimes that’s ok.

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And, for many employee training programs, it’s crystal clear that custom training is the right—if not, the only—solution. Examples include launching a new product, implementing a new system, or developing new hire training—all of which must focus on company-specific business outcomes, policies, processes, roles, and metrics. Off the shelf programs could never efficiently address these specific learning needs.

Sometimes the solution is to build a 100% custom program that blends culture, process, and core competencies from the start, though that’s one option. You could also develop a few custom modules to augment an off the shelf course, adding case studies or real-life scenarios. In a blended learning program, the off the shelf modules could be part of a flipped classroom approach in which learner’s complete general awareness modules independently before an in-person practicum.

Regardless of your need, for a transformational experience, you will need to engage a learner's heart, head, and hands, which requires customization. Effective learning starts by helping the learner discover why the knowledge or skill they’re being taught makes a difference and understand, cognitively, their role. Then, with that buy-in, you can dig into the how. If your key challenge is to see results measured on engagement, satisfaction, transfer of learning, and proficiency, then you’ll want to consider a custom solution. If that’s the route you take, prepare for an enlightening experience.


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