Training Supplier or Learning Partner: Which does your business need?

“What is it that we actually need?”

This is a common challenge and question that we often see at Purple Owl. Does your business need a training supplier or a learning partner? On the surface it may seem obvious but choosing wisely will be critical to output and result.

Firstly, like any other informed decision you’ll make for your business, two basic questions apply: “What are we trying to achieve (and why)?” and “What will the return be?”.

But how do you make the specific choice between choosing a training supplier or a learning partner for your business’ training needs? Let’s start with the obvious, what’s the difference?

What’s the difference between a training supplier and a learning partner?

A training supplier will supply training services in standardised transaction patterns for a period of time. When the training ends, the relationship ends. A learning partner however is a tailored business relationship based on trust, open-ness, shared risk and reward to organisational growth. The relationship is most likely to be maintained to ensure growth is continued.

a wheel describing the learning development cycle, at the top moving clockwise the stages are: analyse, design, develop, implement, evaluate

A practical way to distinguish between the two and help determine requirements is to reference the “Learning and Development Cycle”. Typically, a learning partner will specialise in – but not be limited to – the “Analyse” and “Evaluation” phases. They will often source or help source the other steps or may deliver themselves. A training supplier however will most likely provide services around the “Design”, “Develop” or “Implement” stages. The analysis and evaluation will most likely be conducted elsewhere, either within the business or with an external provider.

an image detailing the differences between a partner and a supplier using a slider metaphor

So, essentially a learning partner will focus on the long term and be relationship focussed, whilst a training supplier may be more short-term and contractually based. That is not to say a training supplier will not have long term relationships. Quite the contrary – one training supplier I recently spoke to has been working with the same client for 15 years. However they are less involved in strategic decision making, and more in the transactional side of the business. The image to the right demonstrates further.

Of course, all of this can also apply internally with your business. Do you have a training team that can design, develop and deliver training interventions based on reaction, or do you have learning partners that contribute to the strategic direction of the business?

How do you choose?

So, what else should you be looking for when it comes to choosing a partner for your business? Like all outside providers, their behaviours will be paramount. Essentially, this will apply whether you are looking at a training supplier or a learning partner. The behaviours you should be looking for are:


Will the learning or training provider provide a return on your investment? They should be able to provide a cost-based analysis (in most cases) on what it will cost to provide the required services and the measurable outcomes on what the return is anticipated to be. Note: the return may not always be just financial. Watch the following video ‘ensuring ROI’ to see a further perspective.


Do you have the internal capability? An external provider should be able to bridge the gap in the capability, whether that be adding value on what is missing, up-skilling existing teams or driving the project in its entirety. As with ‘value’ you should ensure you have considered the total cost of using existing employees against the total cost of using an external provider.


Time is money! I once worked in a division of a well-known public sector provider who would spend on average 6 months making decisions on big ticket items. By the time they’d decided, the initial need had changed and we would all go back to square one. I argued that this wasn’t the best use of tax payers’ money! The same applies when considering a learning intervention – what is the cost of delaying or, worse, doing nothing?


Can you trust them? Sounds obvious however this is critical. Think of trust like a bank account. When you meet someone, you start with nothing in your account and over time you (or they) make deposits or withdrawals. So, the external provider must prove themselves. Look for clues such as how quickly do they respond to your requests, did they meet agreed timelines, do they offer ‘proof of concept’ options to show the ROI?


Do they have a passion for learning? This is a big clue. If they don’t, chances are they won’t have a passion for you or your business!


Do they understand your business? All learning interventions will require some form of change, whether it be big or small. To assist a business through that change, an external provider must demonstrate a good top-to-bottom understanding of your business to help navigate the change.

If you follow these six considerations, you should be well placed in finding the right external provider, whether you are looking to change an existing provider, or looking to use one for the first time.

So, there you have it – a few guidelines to help with your decision making when it comes to training provision in your business.

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