How Digital Learning Teams Can Do More for Less By Tapping into the Talent Economy

How Digital Learning Teams Can Do More for Less By Tapping into the Talent Economy

Do More for Less: The Constant Challenge in L&D

Many trends have blown through the Digital Learning community in the past few years. But one constant challenge is “do more with less.” In-house L&D teams responsible for digital learning are under relentless pressure to deliver more (faster, lower cost, higher quality) from limited budget and resources.

Coupled with this, the skills required to deliver effective learning solutions are changing too. Recently Fuse Universal published this list of the new skills required for Learning Professionals:

  1. Performance Consultant
  2. Community Engagement Manager
  3. Experience Designer
  4. Videographer & Storyteller
  5. Animator / Visualiser
  6. Data Analyst

Combine these with this list of key skills in L&D from Don Taylor:

  • Instructional Designer
  • Leader
  • Learning architect
  • Quality Assurance / Tester
  • Marketing/Communications
  • Learning technologist
  • Solutions architect
  • Content creators
  • Subject Matter Experts
  • Programme manager
  • Project manager
  • Technical person
  • Performance consultant
  • Learners’ representative
  • Product owner
  • Instructional technologist
  • Post-implementation maintenance

That’s a lot of ground to cover. Let’s step into the shoes of the L&D professional: You need capacity and solid baseline skills to deliver digital learning for your internal clients. But you also need drive innovation forward, tap into these new and emerging skills and deliver results.

The traditional options have been to either build internal capacity or hire digital learning agencies to deliver. These remain vital – but they’re not without their limitations. Let’s look at each – and a third way that’s emerging as an option.


  • Building Internal Capacity: Balance core skills with hiring cost


Increasing internal capacity though has its challenges. If you’re anything like the in-house L&D teams we work with, you’re facing a low to zero headcount increase.

And do you really need all of these skills in-house? Marketing and communications is vital for launching and communicating value of new initiatives, but you probably can’t cost justify a marketing professional sitting full time in your L&D team. And unless you’re making explainer animations on an industrial scale, you don’t need to hire someone for that.

Looking inwards isn’t always the best way to keep up with change either. As Mike Booth, Head of Learning Technology at Dixons Carphone put it: ““As a Learning Technologies professional you’re trying to keep abreast of the market but there are only so many hours in the day and 101 other things to do. The market changes quickly tools and suppliers come and go, trends come and go, no matter how experienced you are you can’t keep up with it all.” So it makes sense to look beyond your core team.

  1. Hiring Digital Learning Agencies: Do you always get what you pay for?

The traditional method for bringing external digital learning skills is the agency / company route.

Agencies are made up of teams of people with specialist skills. Hiring one takes away some of the risk, as they’re accountable for design and development of your elearning module, your LMS support, developing videos and animations and so on.

The positive aspect of this is a single point of contact (usually an account manager or project/programme lead) and consistency of people, style and quality. However, many L&D buyers get into the habit of using the same agency or shortlist of 2-3 for all of their outsourced digital learning. Sometimes that’s through familiarity and comfort, sometimes that’s because there’s a procurement restriction on how many agencies can be on a framework. The result is many clients go back to the same few players time and again, which isn’t the best breeding ground for quality and innovation.

The other challenge with larger agencies is cost. As digital learning agencies grow from smaller, agile teams to more established players, overheads increase which drive up costs. That tends to flow through to pricing.

  1. Tap into the Talent Economy

There’s a third way: Tapping into the talent economy to hire freelancers and smaller specialist agencies.

This method of scaling your workforce is well established in other sectors. And as more of the labour market becomes freelance, the opportunity to tap into a diverse range of skills increases. According to Upwork, one of the leading freelancer platforms in the US:


  • Freelancers represent 35% of the US workforce, over 55 million people.
  • Their combined earnings in 2016 were over $1 trillion
  • Technology enables them to find work and match their skills with employer requirements

A new range of platforms and providers has emerged to provide access to freelancer skills in different labour markets. For example, Catalant in the US provides access to accountants, lawyers and other professionals on demand. 99 Designs provide access to a global talent pool for logo and brand design.

There’s a growing trend in the digital learning market to work this way.  This is because tapping into the freelancer and smaller agency talent economy provides benefits to L&D teams:

A wider talent pool: Freelancers are only as good as their last job. It’s in their interest to stay up to date on the key skills that make them employable and attractive to you. They’re motivated to keep developing their skills, as the market will reward them for being the best in class. If they don’t, they won’t win work.

Cost Savings: Freelancers have lower overhead and need to win work in a competitive market, so they’re likely to be lower than you’d pay for the day rate equivalent inside a larger agency for the same skills and resources. Often larger agencies contract with freelancers to work on your projects anyway. Some are transparent about this, others are not. By finding and partnering directly with talent, you’ll spend less.

Streamlined Procurement: Let’s be honest: contracting with multiple freelancers isn’t ideal. Working with one partner or platform to help you navigate the freelancer market and provide you with access to a wider talent pool is a way to simplify things for everyone – including procurement. As Mike Booth says: “We’ve made massive reductions in the overhead that goes with POs and administration. That’s the unglamourous bit of learning technology that takes time and effort for not much value, and that’s all removed.”

Faster start: One of the main things we hear from our clients along with budget constraints is the need to get started on projects quickly. Freelancers are generally able to mobilise faster than companies with a larger volume of projects and more complex resourcing models – they’ll often have a lead time, the last thing you want to hear when you want to get started tomorrow.

Scale up or down on demand: You may have large scale strategic learning initiatives where you want to partner with a large agency. But most L&D teams have a long tail of smaller, tactical BAU projects and tasks that need taking care of. Freelancers can focus on small discrete tasks, for example learning designs, elearning development, animations and graphics: the jobs that are often too small for larger companies.

Extend your core team flexibly: Sometimes you need someone to join the team for a specific project or initiative. Freelancers can be onsite and become part of your extended team for this purpose. That can be for tactical jobs, or for strategy and consultancy work too.

Case Study: Old Mutual Wealth Taps into the Talent Economy to Deliver Benefits

Old Mutual Wealth provides financial advice, products and services in a wide range of areas including pensions and asset management. Digital Learning is at the core of its strategy: for compliance, regulatory, leadership, product knowledge and more.

Old Mutual Wealth wanted a fresh approach to digital learning. Too much time and cost was spent on market scanning, procurement and vendor management. Better to spend it on great digital learning instead. Time to Tap into the Talent Economy.

Moving to an on-demand solution partnering with Jam Pan, Old Mutual now resources a wide range of projects and needs through a combination of freelancers and specialist agencies.

Ennis Reid, Head of Learning and Development set out the benefits of this model:

Fresh thinking: “Freelancers bring diversity to the team. Using freelancers brings in a good mix of different people from different backgrounds and I think that’s also healthy. They also bring in a healthy energy and sense of challenge.”

Scale on Demand: “At performance review time, our work really does increase, even though we don’t increase in my team’s headcount. [The talent economy] gives us instant capacity to deliver at times when there’s added pressure such as performance review time”.

Speed: “We had a recent request for an anti-money-laundering course and the freelancer turned it around in a couple of days. If we had gone to an organisation to do it, there
would have been contracts to sign, a 12-week wait time, etc. This way speeds up the process and cuts through all of the red tape.”


If you haven’t brought freelancers into your skills and resource mix, 2018 is the year to pilot it. Start small, choose a tactical project and explore the market beyond the usual suspects. The Talent Economy has disrupted professional services in law, HR, engineering and accountancy. Isn’t it time for Digital Learning Professionals to think differently too?

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