Protocol | Workplace

No one likes corporate training programs. Is there a better way?

Companies like Reforge, On Deck and Maven are replacing the awkward training programs for mid-career professionals.

Wall of sticky notes

A growing number of sites are delivering support for working professionals who are hungry to learn but don't see opportunities within their workplace.

Photo: Getty Creative

Welcome to the era of the unbundled corporation.

Two decades of frothy corporate perks brought us office campuses with gourmet cafeterias, laundromats and on-site gyms. These amenities were supposed to create incentives to stay with the org, either because the company was supporting employees' needs or, as more arch observers have noted, because they made it possible for people to work longer hours.

What often got left out, however, was professional development: substantive support for employees, especially in the early or middle of their career arc. "There are tons of bootcamps to help people get jobs and tons of executive support, but not a lot in between," said Brian Balfour, founder and chief executive of Reforge. "And that's where we spend most of our time: the middle of our careers."

Reforge is one of a growing number of sites delivering support for working professionals who are hungry to learn but don't see opportunities within their workplace. It's a fiercely hot market, fueled by a convergence of trends: lackluster internal coaching; prefab and awkward "corporate training" programs; impersonal, massive online programs where dropping out is far more common than soldiering through. Managers know what they're supposed to do: "Address the 'learn and grow' not the free stuff," wrote Gallup CEO Jim Clifton in a company blog post.

But who wants to sit around and wait for management to become enlightened?

That's one of the reasons Balfour started Reforge in 2015. It has been profitable since its first year, and these days is racking up "eight-figure revenue." And then came the pandemic. Stuck at home, investors shook off any lingering doubts about the power of online learning cohorts (at least for adults).

In February, Reforge said it had raised $21 million in venture funding. Others have followed: In March, On Deck, a community learning platform, raised its own $20 million series A. Section4, an online business education platform started by New York University professor and internet celeb Scott Galloway, topped up an earlier seed round with a series A that put its funding at $37 million. And in May, Maven said it had secured $20 million in funding to build a platform for delivering cohort-based classes. (Its founding team had previously created Udemy, altMBA and Socratic.)

Each is taking a different approach to supporting young professionals. Gagan Biyani has been immersed in online education — democratizing learning, as he likes to say — since 2009, when he teamed up with two Turkish entrepreneurs to jumpstart the online learning market, Udemy. "This feels like a much bigger wave than the last," he said. "In my mind, the shift used to be online [professional development] was about keeping costs low and early career development. Now people are choosing online learning over in-person at the most senior levels of organizations." That's almost a textbook definition of disruptive innovation.

Maven's platform enables instructors, particularly in business, to create and offer "cohort-based courses," (CBCs, if you like acronyms) and reap the rewards. Much like Substack has become a profitable platform for many writers, Maven is rolling out the welcome banners for instructors. It's also pulling together the administrative tools its instructors need to create interactive, accountable community-based classes, both live and asynchronous. And Maven takes an active role in coaching those instructors about how to build effective cohorts. Instructors set the parameters such as student fees (which range from $100 to $2,000 per course) and the number of students accepted (between 70 to 150 students seems to work) — and they pocket 90% of the revenue.

No one needs to apply to join a Maven cohort. "Selectivity is both valuable in some contexts and highly overrated in others," Biyani said. "The mere fact that you're adventurous enough to take a cohort course means you've 'preselected' yourself. That can be powerful."

Joel Montano, a program manager at a large, Seattle-based technology company, agrees. Montano says he was a couple of months into his new role when he began looking for ways to learn more.

His employer offered him online programs that awarded certificates but few insights to unlocking his most pressing challenges. "The answers to my questions always seemed to be a lot of: 'It depends,'" Montano said. He was already following Lenny Rachitsky, who writes Lenny's Newsletter, a popular advice column on product management. When he saw that Rachitsky was going to offer a four-week workshop-style course on Maven, Montano jumped in.

What Montano found he valued the most from the experience were the peers he met online, who are all wrestling with similar situations: "The value was in the people. We keep in touch. We ask each other questions." The curriculum was helpful, Montano said, but building relationships with peers "suits my way of learning."

Reforge puts so much stock in cohorts that Balfour said they have turned down "quite a few" individuals as well as companies that have applied. "There's a misconception that 'selectivity' is about 'exclusivity,'" he said. "That's what the Ivy League schools taught us. But that's not what we're looking for."

Instead, he said, they prioritize relevance and students' "desire to learn." "We're trying to put people in an environment that's relevant to what they're working on at just that stage of their career," Balfour said. "We focus on teaching how to solve problems and reach goals within the organization, rather than isolated skill sets."

These types of courses aren't for people looking to switch careers or who need to learn how to write SQL queries. But, for example, a senior individual contributor who is now stepping up to manage a portfolio of people or channels might want to know how to drive growth or customer engagement and retention, or how to systematically create a culture of experimentation. That's where Reforge comes in.

Around 8,000 people have gone through one of Reforge's six-week programs, led by industry practitioners, which has an annual membership fee of $2,000. A cornerstone of Reforge's approach is to amplify people's desire to learn. When well-intentioned managers buy a PD solution and roll it out without assessing employees' interest, even a good program can flounder. "We see the best results when managers find people on their teams with that desire and then support them" by giving them the tools that help them grow, Balfour said.

Cohorts — far more than instructors or curriculum — are also the core of On Deck's programs. People apply to be part of cohorts built around jobs ("founder" or "community builder") or sectors (so far there are four: climate tech, ed tech, fintech and health). There are speakers, socials and hackathons, but the value comes through meeting peers. When designer Lucy Mort joined On Deck, "I had all of these ideas and no one to collaborate with," she wrote. "It was great to be dropped into this community of people that thought like me." Through On Deck, she met a co-founder and raised funding for her startup, Sunroom.

By contrast, Galloway parlayed his popularity and success into a fast-paced online program, Section4. He recruited longtime entrepreneur Greg Shove to join as chief executive. "We decided to focus on the idea of 'sprints,'" Shove said, an intense two-week program built as a stack of synchronous lectures, prerecorded video lessons, case studies, a project and a community on Slack. Shove's mantra: Deliver 60% of the value of a great business school class for 10% of the cost ($750 per class) and "no friction" for those taking the program. "It isn't easy. We had to convince ourselves the sprint format worked," Shove said.

A week before the pandemic closed down much of the country, Section4 launched with a program taught by Galloway built on his past teaching experience. It was a hit particularly with ambitious mid-career managers from small companies in many industries and locations. Now other name-brand lecturers are joining Section4's teaching ranks, such as Mohan Sawhney, associate dean at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

So far, more than 12,000 students have taken a dozen sessions. Topics include brand, consumer experience, innovation, platform, product and strategy. Classes have as many as 1,000 students — and plenty of teaching assistants. More than 70% of those who start the program finish.

"We wanted to challenge every assumption in ed tech," Shove said, starting with the size of cohorts.. He wants students to find peers who are relevant, which he thinks is easier in large cohorts. "We're going to test a class of 2,000," he said.

Soon to be announced: Annual memberships in Section4 ($1,000 a year) that include ongoing live lectures, updated case studies, in-person (in addition to virtual) events — and, of course, "access to the network itself." Shove said he's already hearing of Section4 alumni hiring one another, even though the company has yet to even create a jobs board.

"Our mission is to get this quality offering out to as many people as possible," he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Reforge was founded in 2015; it was founded in 2016. It also misstated the name of the Kellogg School of Management. This story was updated on June 24, 2021.

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