An interview with Benjamin Joseph, co-founder and CEO, and Rupert Hillier, co-founder and COO of Learnlight from HR and Training Magazine Equipos y Talento.
Learnlight strives day to day to find ways to harness technology for learning. It recently strengthened its position in the European market with the acquisition of the German training company arenalingua. This deal takes Leanlight one step closer to its goal of offering global solutions to global organizations all over the world. Learnlight currently has over 3,000 trainers expertly training more than 150,000 learners in more than 150 countries around the world.
You describe yourselves as an EdTech. What does this concept mean to you?
Benjamin Joseph (B.J.): EdTech is all about using technology to make learning accessible to everyone and deliver knowledge to the modern learner in the most efficient way possible. Today’s learners expect instant access to knowledge and want their questions answered immediately. They have very little time and use their devices to stay constantly connected…EdTech companies strive to respond to the needs of the modern learner and harness technology for educational purposes.
Rupert Hillier (R.H.): This implies using technology to enhance, expand and empower our trainers’ human skills. Our philosophy differs from our competitors because, historically, our sector focuses on getting rid of the human element and putting technology first. We believe that at the heart of every transformative moment, every moment of learning, there has to be a human connection between two people.
Learnlight has not stopped growing since day one. How would you describe this journey?
B.J.: We’ve always been an international organization. The biggest change for us was going from distributing our services through our partners in different countries to distributing them directly. To do this, we built our own sales network abroad and also acquired a series of companies. Two years ago, we were joined by a British Private Equity fund, and this has allowed us to acquire leading companies in different countries. As a company, we’ve been very global from the start because, at the end of the day, our clients are global and are looking for global solutions.
Two years ago, we were joined by a British Private Equity fund, and this has allowed us to acquire leading companies in different countries.
R.H.: Spain was a very strong starting point for us, as the HR and L&D departments here are keenly aware of the need to help their teams and workers develop the skills that will allow them to communicate effectively in a global world. For us, this has meant multiple challenges, many lessons learned and also many partners, companies that we have grown and learned hand in hand with, trying out different solutions. It has been a very interesting experience that has helped prepare us for our expansion into other markets.
What are you doing to integrate the corporate cultures of the new companies that now form part of Learnlight?
B.J.: This is always a challenge. Fortunately, one of the areas we specialize in is intercultural training and we’re very used to the challenges of working with different cultures. Also, luckily for us, the companies we have acquired were already working with us, and the relationship between us was already based on trust and transparency, the perfect foundation for a common future.
We’ve always been an international organization. The biggest change was going from distributing our services through our partners in different countries to distributing them directly.
We’ve always been an international organization
R.H.: We focus on values and culture because one of our goals is to make sure that our people are compatible, which we believe is essential to ensure success in a merger or acquisition. Our three main values are: enthusiasm, or the ability to see an opportunity where others see a problem; initiative, or being proactive; and commitment, or giving our best through thick and thin. And these are the values we look for in the companies we want to acquire.
How does the acquisition of arenalingua impact your international objectives?
R.H.: arenalingua is one of the top language training companies in Germany. The deal was backed by Beech Tree Private Equity and our management team, and it’s a step forward in our international expansion strategy, after the Learnlight merger with Ispeakuspeak and Training Express, and the subsequent acquisition of Communicaid. arenalingua offer blended English courses for employees which are financed by the German government; specialized courses—medicine, public health, engineering—for professionals, in German; and German classes for qualified expats.
B.J.: It’s going to be the perfect platform for us to continue working with leading German companies on their journey toward digital transformation. The German market is becoming more and more open to digital and virtual training, which makes this a very good deal. The acquisition of arenalingua adds to our already strong presence in Europe, with offices in London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich and Spain (Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid) and sales networks in Italy and the US. Future acquisitions will probably take place in the US, initially, and then, possibly, in Asia.
The acquisition of arenalingua adds to our already strong presence in Europe, with offices in London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich and Spain (Barcelona, Bilbao and Madrid).
What’s your view of the corporate training market in Spain? What is Learnlight’s key differentiator?
R.H.: It varies significantly. In some companies, there’s a huge gap between what they want and the means they’re ready to use to get it, but there are also a lot of organizations that are well aware of the strategic importance of investing in developing their employees’ skills. They understand that the world is changing and professionals today don’t work or learn the same way that they did 20 years ago. The profile of the modern employee is changing, and companies have to change their processes to adapt to these changes.
B.J.: Spain is actually ahead of other markets when it comes to embracing technology for corporate training. There’s currently a shift towards blended and virtual training, and I think this, along with a strong focus on quality, is crucial.
What is the greatest challenge in the corporate training world?
B.J.: The greatest training challenge today is engagement. When people are checking their phone 200 times an hour, have 300 things to do at work and, on top of all that, we’re asking them to find time to learn, engagement becomes quite a challenge.
The greatest training challenge today is engagement.
We focus on making sure learners really make the most of the tools we give them—what’s the point in having great tools if nobody uses them? The key to this is in the trainers behind those tools. We use technology to empower our trainers, not to replace them. Our goal is to connect those who want to learn with those who want to teach them, and give them all the tools they need to succeed in a virtual context.
And what is the key to learner engagement?
R.H.: Today’s learners have a lot of different training options. We need to understand that we have to offer them an experience that can compete in this context. It has to be stimulating, relevant, interesting, immediately applicable to their job, satisfying… That’s why we provide many different learning paths—variety is a very important element. But, at the end of the day, the key lies in the relationship between learners and trainers. Our technology simply connects people who end up having a very close relationship after six, nine or twelve months working together.
The key lies in the relationship between learners and trainers.
You emphasize the role of your trainers in maximizing learner engagement. How would you describe their profile?
B.J.: The answer to this question is very broad, since we have thousands of trainers. When it comes to languages, we look for the obvious qualities: they must be native speakers, they have to have a degree and also some experience, they have to understand how the business world works and, more importantly, they have to be positive, excellent communicators, and capable of making the process fun and driving learner engagement.
How do you select and prepare your trainers to enable them to play a crucial role in learner engagement and commitment?
R.H.: There are several stages. The first step is choosing the best, and we benefit from the fact that virtual trainers can be located anywhere in the world. We receive thousands of applications every year, which allows us to choose the best of the best. The second is a training process via our platform, at the end of which they have to take a test and get certified in our methodology. And the last stage is ongoing training. Our system allows learners to rate their trainers on multiple elements, which gives us a fairly accurate assessment of their strengths and areas for improvement, and we help them work on solving any possible gaps.
You mentioned that you use a flipped classroom methodology. How does it work?
B.J.: Traditionally, people acquired knowledge inside the classroom and then practiced what they’d learned outside of it. Nowadays, thanks to new technologies, people can acquire knowledge outside the classroom and then practice what they learn inside it. This ties in perfectly with our philosophy of making the most of what both technology and the trainer can offer. It doesn’t make any sense for learners to spend time with their trainer doing listening exercises, filling in the blanks or doing a grammar exercise: they can do that on their phone with interactive or video-based exercises, or with AI engines…The time with the trainer is better spent focusing on improving fluency and comprehension, enhancing their conversation skills, solving doubts, communicating…
We’ve been a global company from the start because, at the end of the day, our clients are global and are looking for global solutions.
Thanks to your learning model, you have become the strategic partner of many leading global companies. What’s your secret? What sets you apart from other providers?
B.J.: We’re partners with many large organizations, more than half of the companies in the Ibex 35 index. I think what sets us apart from other providers is that we can guide each company in its journey toward digital transformation, which is a gradual process. We might start working with a company that does everything face-to-face and begin, for example, by replacing their books for tablets. And, once a month, learners will have a virtual session with someone, a video conference, to help them get used to it. In one or two years all their training, or practically all of it, will be virtual.
What sets us apart from other providers is that we can guide each company in its journey toward digital transformation.
Some of the projects developed in Spain have been so successful that you “exported” the learning experience from the regional branch to the company headquarters, like with Siemens, for example. What does this mean for Learnlight?
R.H.: It’s a positive sign of their trust in our abilities and services. There are several examples of companies we’ve grown hand-in-hand with and that, through the years, have ended up hiring our services globally.
B.J.: Our relationship with Siemens grew gradually. We started out as their training provider in Spain and now we are the official training partner for Siemens Global. It’s been a wonderful journey that has allowed us to learn a lot from one another, because Siemens is not averse to taking risks and exploring new ways of developing its employees. It’s been a wonderful process of joint development that has led us to a global project, with training worldwide.
You have a R&D department to develop new projects. Which of these projects would you highlight?
R.H.: Our R&D department has two main focal points. One is more external, and focuses on the future of training, the learner experience, the evolution brought to us by the fourth industrial revolution… That’s why we experiment with AI—in the largest possible sense—with virtual reality, with augmented reality…We believe that they offer a world of possibilities that can help us move forward with the personalization of training and the learning process.
The second focus is on the automatization of internal processes, on offering tools that will help our teams do more with less, on looking for synergies and improving efficiency, which, given how fast we’re growing, is essential for us.
You’ve both been part of Learnlight since it was founded. Have your expectations for the company been met?
R.H.: I would make a distinction here between dreams and expectations. The latter has been exceeded times two or three. But we’re ambitious, and we dream big. We see plenty of opportunities in the industry. We want to contribute to improving the experience and satisfaction of all those who wish to learn.