Emmanuel Le Bouille had a training problem. The health program director for Groupe Auchan, an international retail group, had to implement a global wellbeing course for 260,000 members of staff — 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," he says.
That was nowhere near fast enough. So Mr. Le Bouille turned to a Swiss start-up 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," Mr. 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 ($2.32 US) 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," Mr. Le Bouille says.
Tech start-ups such as Coorpacademy are trying to break into the global corporate education sector, dominated by business schools and this year estimated to be worth $362bn, 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 organisation 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 €13.4m 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 Mr. 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'Oreal, including resellers and hairdressers," Mr. Tassetto says. "We said, why not open it up worldwide?"
Another provider is Skillsoft, acquired by Charterhouse Capital Partners in 2014 for an estimated $2bn. Its courses are offered in 30 languages and the company is focused on healthcare, financial services, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals sectors.
London-based SmartUp, backed with $5.5m 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," Frank Meehan, co-founder and chief executive, says.
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 Mr. Meehan. "The market is fragmented mainly because it is so large," he says. "That means a lot of space for everyone."
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