Workplace

Dips in subscribers and a fight for your attention: How ed tech looks a lot like Netflix

A lot of the challenges facing Netflix were first seen in the corporate learning landscape years ago.

Notes

Learning and development platforms want stay nimble and relevant.

Photo: Firmbee.com/Unsplash

For those keeping score, yet another ed tech company in the corporate learning space has consolidated. Early last month, Codecademy, the learning platform known for teaching millions how to code online, finalized its agreement to be acquired by Skillsoft.

Consolidation has become commonplace in the sector. This is the third ed tech acquisition since June 2021, when Skillsoft went public. The company is known in the industry as one of the earliest purveyors in the corporate education game.

This most recent acquisition represents efforts by some of the oldest and most established learning and development platforms to stay nimble and relevant in a time when attention is scarce and training material goes quickly out of date. And while some may be concerned that this foreshadows a future in which the space is controlled by a few mighty corporate learning providers, experts say the opposite is true.

For Skillsoft, the move to acquire Codecademy made sense. The company has been rapidly building out a full suite of new learning options for its corporate partners to hit employees at every level. Skillsoft acquired both Global Knowledge, a technical training platform, and Pluma, a leadership coaching platform, in 2021. Skillsoft CEO Jeff Tarr said the company is also optimizing content for mobile to catch people wherever they are online.

“We've created what we refer to as the new Skillsoft,” said Tarr, who officially assumed the role last year. He described the company's variety of ed tech offerings for learning leaders, including those from Skillsoft, Global Knowledge, Pluma and now Codecademy. “Each bring something different and special to the table,” Tarr told Protocol.

While Skillsoft has long been known as a major player in online learning aimed at enterprise companies and their employees, Global Knowledge is more of a leader in instructor-led, synchronous learning. Its trainings focus primarily on the technical skills needed to support some of the largest hardware and software vendors in the world, he said. Pluma, on the other hand, delivers executive, leadership and management coaching to corporate employees.

“We've put all of these together with the objective of creating a new and more absorbing and engaging way to learn online,” said Tarr. He’s thinking about how to capture audiences with content that appeals to a wide variety of interests while also justifying the cost.

“When it comes to everything we do, we believe we don't just compete with other learning options: We're competing for learners' time with other options in general. So we have to compete with the most compelling entertainment options that people have, because when you're going to be on a mobile device and you have a choice of how you're going to use your time, we want people to learn,” he said. “And so that means consumerizing the experience … And it means making what we do incredibly engaging.”

Josh Bersin, industry analyst and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company, likens what’s been happening in the enterprise ed tech industry over the past several years to what we are now seeing at Netflix: dips in subscribers and a fight for consumers’ attention.

“It's very similar to the problem at Netflix: You get really big and you have all these customers, and all of a sudden, you don't have the best content anymore, and a bunch of people leave,” said Bersin. That’s why so many enterprise ed tech companies have taken to buying up smaller brands with more innovative content and established customer bases.

Zach Sims, co-founder and CEO of Codecademy, said the company will continue to hold on to its distinct value proposition: offering highly interactive technical training for anyone to learn, even as it moves under the historically corporate umbrella of Skillsoft. He touts its “learning by doing” model and the quality of content as what make Codecademy so unique.

“There are bootcamp programs, there are more intensive programs that are created in partnership with universities or someone else, but we stand behind our content because we create almost all of it in-house,” Sims told Protocol.

Because of their size, companies like Codecademy are often considered to be the most innovative and nimble in the space. “The dynamics are: When you're small and creative, you come up with really good content, and really creative new ways of expressing it. The bigger you get, the more your company becomes a sales and marketing company,” said Bersin.

But this does not mean the industry is doomed to consolidate into several big enterprise ed tech companies in the future. “What actually happens is the opposite. A lot of the really big ones go out of business … because their content was old,” he said.

Bersin believes there will always be a bevy of smaller mom-and-pop ed tech shops in the corporate learning landscape.

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