Learner as Customer: Implications & Opportunities for Corporate Learning Functions

Since the dawn of time (or what seems like the dawn of time) learning organizations have focused on our beloved ADDIE and Kirkpatrick/Phillips or some variation of these venerable models.

And why not? For creation, deployment and evaluation of learning solutions, they are incredibly powerful in helping organize and tackle the complex mission we have. In fact, when we master and consistently apply them to Assess, Design, Develop, Implement and Evaluate, we can deliver meaningful learner and business impact.

However, is there another, complementary, framework that could help learning organizations increase their impact? At Cisco, we have begun a journey to answer that question…and spoiler alert… we think the answer is "yes." Before getting into what we are doing, there are two critical points to make: 1) the approach does not replace traditional models (it complements them) and 2) many of you will recognize elements of the approach as things you do today.

The difference and power we believe, lies in linking discrete elements of work many learning functions do into a consistent and more disciplined framework that complements traditional learning frameworks such as ADDIE.

At its core, the idea is that learning functions will deliver more value to our "Customer in Chief" (the business) if we elevate our focus on learners… treating them as customers also by understanding their needs and driving their point of view into how the learning function does business.

To do this as effectively as possible, we can leverage ideas and practices from an entirely different discipline… Customer Experience.

So What Is Customer Experience?

First lets clarify what it's not. It is not User Experience; it is not Customer Service & Support, and it is not Customer Relationship Management. Although each of these can play a role, they alone are not Customer Experience.

There are many definitions, but the following two achieve key goals… the first is succinct and to the point. Customer experience is how your customers perceive their interactions with your company1.

The second includes important details that are critical to consider. Customer experience is interaction between an organization and a customer as perceived through a customer’s conscious and subconscious mind… a blend of an organization’s rational performance, the senses stimulated and emotions evoked, as intuitively measured against customer expectations across all moments of contact2.

Using these and other similar definitions, practitioners of Customer Experience have developed a set of tools and processes to systematically assess the current experience, identify gaps to the desired experience, and implement actions needed to close the gaps.

Why Is Customer Experience Important to Business?

In their book Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business, Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine of Forrester Research point out that "customer experience is the greatest untapped source of both decreased costs and increased revenue in most industries".

They back this up with data, showing among other things, how companies rated highest in Customer Experience have significantly better stock performance and customer loyalty. Importantly, they also note that Customer Experience fails to have meaningful impact when it is simply a slogan or when it is treated as something soft and squishy.

How Can Learning Teams Leverage the Ideas of Customer Experience to Deliver More Value to the Businesses They Support?

First and foremost, think of learners as customers and focus on the Learner Experience. With this as a starting point, the ideas, practices and tools of Customer Experience will enable learning functions look differently at what learning is and how it can deliver more value.

Cisco started by identifying a "Learner Experience Goal." This brief statement acts as a guiding principle for how the learner experience should be at Cisco.

The next step in applying CX best practices to the learner experience was to use a basic Customer Experience tool… the Experience Map or Journey Map. A journey map is designed to define the interactions, or "touch points," that customers experience with a business.

Everything from a customer’s interaction with a sales person when they walk in the front door to the bill that the customer gets in the mail.

Why are journey maps important? According to Daniel Kahneman's Nobel Prize winning work in behavioral economics, the peak and end points of an experience (whether positive or negative) have a disproportionately large impact on a person’s perception of the overall experience3, 4. This is known as the Peak-End Rule.

While learning organizations may be asking learner satisfaction questions specific to course content and delivery, the reality is that the "peaks" before, during and after the course, as well as the final interaction with the learning organization or its product, have the largest impact on the learner’s overall experience.

Therefore, it’s critical to understand what the learner experience is at each point in their journey.

Applying the experience map concept to learners as customers, Cisco developed the "Learner Experience Touch Points Model."

The touch points model significantly broadened our view of what the learner experience is and what we as a learning function must focus on to deliver optimal value to learners and the business.

Where ADDIE largely examines learning & development from the perspective of a learning function and the business, the Learner Experience Touch Point Model takes the view of the learner by providing an "outside-in" view of the end-to-end learner experience.

The model begins with "awareness" that learning and development resources are available, even before the learner has a specific need. It then moves through each key interaction learners have with a learning organization, its products and services, ending with the "apply" touch point, where real behavior change occurs on the job and value begins to accrue to both learner and the business.

With the Learning Experience Touch Point model defined, Cisco next began assessing the experience at each touch point to get a better understanding of what was happening from a learner’s perspective, what worked well, and what needed improvement. This was done using various measurement methods, including surveys, heuristic usability studies, LMS data analysis, etc.

Once measurement of the experience revealed areas for improvement, gaps were prioritized in terms of impact to the learner (frequency and severity) and cost of the solution. Several large projects were undertaken, including improving learning portal functionality, ease of use, and ordering search results so that low usage courses were at the bottom of the list.

But just as importantly, many small improvements were made that had minimal costs but resulted in big experience improvements.

Learner Experience Touch Points
  • Awareness – actions that drive employee’s knowledge of available learning offerings
  • Find – employee’s actions to search for and locate a learning solution to address a specific need.
  • Access – employee's actions to gain access to the learning solution (e.g. registering for formal training, clicking on link to launch e-learning, traveling to traditional classroom, scheduling time & calling mentor, etc.)
  • Participate – employee’s action to "do" the actual learning activity (e.g. taking the formal class, watching the video on demand, participating in the training conference session, etc.)
  • Apply – employee’s action to utilizing what was learned via changed on the job behavior to deliver business results and improve job/business outcomes. Note: All prior touch points were investments of time and or money. The Apply touch point is the first time value begins to be realized. Through repeated application, the employee and employer realize optimal value.
  • Track & Manage Learning – employee action to keep track of learning they are planning or change their learning plans (view current enrollments, monitor progress, reschedule learning, etc.)
  • Request Support – employee action to request help/support at any point throughout the experience.

In order to enhance application of the touch point methodology and enhance all parts of the learner experience, program owners and individual team members are encouraged to find one aspect of the experience that can be improved each quarter.

These individually identified changes typically do not require significant resources, and are often changes to processes, content, delivery, etc. that improve the experience for the learners.

Equally important, allowing and encouraging each team member to drive change creates a more broad based sense of ownership and pride in creating a great learner experience.

The improvements are celebrated through a portal where others in the organization can view the improvements and who is responsible.

Your learners are your customers, and they are having an experience whether you are aware of it or not. It’s much better to be proactive in designing that experience from beginning to end than leaving it to chance.

There is so much that can be done to improve the learner experience when we view that experience through the Learner Touch Point model and see areas outside of just course design that can increase learner satisfaction and drive desired business results.


  1. Manning, Harley; Bodine, Kerry; Bernoff, Josh (2012-08-28). Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business (p. 8). Amazon Encore. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shaw, Colin / Dibeehi, Qaalfa / Walden, Steven (2010-09-09). Customer Experience (p. 3). Palgrave Macmillan - A. Kindle Edition.
  3. Daniel Kahneman - Autobiography". Nobelprize.org. 6 May 2013 http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2002/kahneman-autobio.html
  4. Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, D.L., Schreiber, C.A., & Redelmeier, D.A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4, 401-405.