On Gamification and Corporate Learning: Lee Bob Black Interviews Paul Sebastien of Udemy for Business

Lee Bob Black
Sep 30, 2018 · 9 min read

With thousands of courses geared toward companies, Udemy for Business is a vast smorgasbord of corporate knowledge. Companies such as 1–800-Flowers, PepsiCo, and hundreds of others are clients. In 2015, I spoke with Paul Sebastien, who was then vice president and general manager of Udemy for Business, about one of its newest clients, and about how the learning and development community is excited about using game design techniques and game mechanics to motivate people to learn. This is a condensed version of our chat.

Paul Sebastien

Lee Bob Black: How is Udemy for Business focusing on gamification?

Paul Sebastien: We’ve been fascinated by it for the last three years.

There are versions of some apps where the gamification is gratuitously overlaid onto an existing system — we’re not fans of that.

Where gamification can be helpful is not in the overlaid, shoehorned in way, but when it’s really woven into the fabric of the course itself. Things like solving puzzles can be critical, and they don’t feel like gamification, per se. We’ve studied this and we’ve found ways to very subtly imbue content to ensure that there are points along the way which someone is incentivized to keep going. The best of Udemy’s courses use this, test your knowledge, give you feedback.

Sometimes though, all these points, badges, and so forth can be counterproductive. They can hurt the retaining of information because the learner focuses upon getting the points or badges rather than the next step. So we try to focus on ways to keep the learner truly engaged.

LBB: It’s almost like you’re trying to make it “gamey” but not trying to bring attention to it being a game. Some of your competitors are going the other direction. Their courses look and feel like games. I’m thinking of Gamelearn, which claims to have hundreds of corporate clients.

PS: We’re really lucky here. We have some experts in this field. Ph.D.-level scientists who have joined our team in the last year who cautioned us and let us know that some forms of gamification can be counterproductive to learning.

We’re constantly testing those things. Looking for new ways — at a cognitive science level — to get people to have a better learning experience.

LBB: It’s expensive to effectively train an employee for a new role, yet many companies refrain from spending much on training. What do you think is the cause of that disconnect?

PS: Historically, it’s been hard for the head of HR to measure return on investment. So they couldn’t go to their CEO or CFO and say, “Hey, here’s what happens when you only spend X versus Y.” That was a huge problem.

We want to solve that problem for HR professionals in companies. They are a little bit in that thankless role where they have to do so much with so little. There’s so much burden on them to recruit, to retain, to train. Yet HR is sometimes the last place that gets a proper budget. It’s been harder to quantify.

LBB: How are you solving that problem?

PS: Training is changing so much. In the past, you had to bring on-site trainers. You had to send people to conferences. You had to find high-touch, expensive ways to do it.

That’s part of the draw that we’re seeing at Udemy for Business — you can get really effective training done with a whole lot less money than you previously thought. It’s in orders of magnitude cheaper.

[Online training] doesn’t solve everything. Some companies need some kind of training on top of it. But we’re seeing — especially with modern companies — that it really solves their pain around training. These tech companies that are growing like crazy — their entire training needs can be met by our solution. Some of them haven’t even yet scratched the surface yet because they haven’t yet created their own courses.

LBB: Do you think that the massive uptick in online training will be the death knell for corporate off-sites?

PS: Off-sites are still important. Our company has them. But they should be for focused around the social and collaboration benefits — the human connection. That’s a very different kind of thing. They shouldn’t be focused on training. Honestly, training is just better done online. Especially if it’s on your phone, tablet, or laptop. It’s you one-on-one with an instructor.

LBB: Are you having many clients come to Udemy for Business to educate their end-users? Facebook has over thirty learning modules hosted on a learning management system called Exceed. Those modules aren’t for employees. They’re for marketing professionals to get the most out of their Facebook ad campaigns. Do you have any business cases like that?

PS: The white-label, externally facing to customers model — we get asked about it every day. We’ve been looking at this for a few years. We’d like to at some point to let companies use our platform to make training courses for end-users and customers, but we’re deliberately chosen not to at the moment. The reason is, we’re so focused on internal training that we wouldn’t want to do a half-baked job of making a white-label platform. When we do it, we’re going to do it right. We’re going to productize it. But we’re big on focus, and we’re focused on these specific pains that HR people and CLOs [chief learning officers] are experiencing around the skills gap. They’re desperate for modern, cutting edge content.

LBB: Udemy has been pivoting from B2C to B2B …

PS: For the last few years, we’ve been growing our consumer business relentlessly. We had a lot of interest from high-growth companies and large enterprises. They’ve been beating down our door saying, “Give us a platform. Give us a way way to give your courses to our employees. Also give us course creation tools. And make it all in the cloud.”

So we launched our B2B division. Now we have two very healthy sides. So it’s not a pivot. We’re committed to both divisions.

Imagine two or three years from now. Imagine when companies can solve their pain points by choosing from 100,000 courses by every subject matter expert on any topic, in almost real-time speed — it’s exciting. You can imagine a large enterprise saying, “There’s been this tectonic shift, and we need to train a bunch of our employees on Apple Swift — or something else that’s just come out.” A company couldn’t solve that problem internally. They’d have to plan their content map months or years in advance. That’s why we’re bullish about both the consumer and B2B sides — it’s just a matter of plotting the curve.

LBB: Where else is Udemy for Business going in the next few years?

PS: We want it to be as seamless as possible to integrate Udemy for Business into an existing infrastructure. A lot of enterprises have existing learning management and HR systems. We want to make it painless for an HR professional to say yes to our courses and tools. We want to make it frictionless for them to do it instantly.

We’re also expanding the variety and quality of our content.

Beyond that, we’re doing some exciting work on offerings for different types of companies and verticals. For example, high-growth tech companies that have a specific set of needs — having a specific offering for them.

We’re also looking at new formats. Wearables — these are amazing new mediums and may prove to be immersive mediums for learning. There are all kind of learning possibilities emerging — AR and VR [augmented reality, virtual reality], for example. But with each new medium, we’re not interested in being there first. We’re interested in doing it well. Is there a creative course-taking experience that someone could have on a watch?

LBB: Do you ever think you’ll provide audio-only courses? Is there a market out there to go retro? Podcasts …

PS: It turns out that a lot of the best courses you can listen to — you don’t have to be actively watching them. That reminds me of a really cool feature we have — you can change the speed of videos. We found that a speed of 1.5X wasn’t too fast — you could still learn something and get through it at a faster clip.

LBB: It would be great if some of the MIT and Stanford MOOCs that came out years ago had that feature.

PS: That sort of content — a talking head with large monolithic segments — we’ve found that companies don’t like that content. A lot of the academic stuff that’s been repurposed as an online video is actually not modern at all. You don’t learn much. You tune out quickly. Companies don’t like that academic content, even if it carries the weight of a name like Harvard.

That’s why we’re so focused on what works. We’re laser-focused on learning. What are people actually learning? What are the right cadences? What are the time-frames? How long should each module be? What should people do visually? How do we make the mobile phone experience better? What’s the fastest way and most effective way for a person to get the information from the course into their head and really have it sink it?

LBB: Century 21, the real estate company, and Udemy for Business have been working together since January. How is the partnership going?

PS: Century 21 had a variety of pain points around millennials. Millennials expect training to look and feel very modern, using content on their mobile phone and tablets. They want it to be like entertainment, not like work.

Century 21 came to us because we have this awesome, ever-updating library of amazing content in the cloud with over 1,000 corporate courses and 25,000 general courses that you can get on-demand access to.

Next, you can create your own courses. The same B2B course creation tools that power the main Udemy marketplace enable anyone inside a company to take legacy materials — old training content, PowerPoint decks, Word docs, whatever — and repackage it.

LBB: Did Century 21 simply load their existing training into Udemy’s systems so their employees can access them?

PS: Not exactly. It’s not really a conversation. It’s using our tool to reinterpret what are the important things from all of these legacy materials. It’s using our tools to create a more compelling and focused version that can be instantly deployed to teams.

On-the-go learning is really key, not just from a time standpoint. These new workers of Century 21 really expect training to be done this way. Millennials have a new level of expectation.

Century 21 wanted to take their base knowledge, add some new knowledge, and create an entirely new material in the Udemy format. They also wanted it to serve as a new standard for their training going forward.

LBB: What are the courses about?

PS: Some are for training new employees. Others are about training existing sales teams — around 100,000 sales associates in the U.S.

How do we attract and draw in people? How do we retain them once they’re here?

I’m pretty sure that Century 21 will create more courses that are for more steps in the cycle. Their pain points around recruiting and training sales team members was just a starting point for them.

We’re working with them to see what else we can do. Because, as you can imagine, a role in sales in a company like that, there are so many different points in a sales process where there are tips, tricks, and best practices, here’s how we do it, here’s how we shouldn’t do it — and that’s just sales. There’s other parts of the company that could come into play.

Once a company tries one area, and they get value from it, they say, “We should use this over in marketing. We should use this in operations. We should use the Udemy library on the latest, greatest Angular JavaScript — that kind of thing.”

LBB: Is Century 21 also using Udemy courses about technical skills?

PS: Arguably, they’re mostly using Udemy right now for soft skills like recruitment and sales. But a next step might be to look at our technical training content.

That they can quickly create their own proprietary materials that are engaging, and instantly deploy that to 100,000 people spread across every tiny corner of the country is pretty amazing.

LBB: Microlearning seems to be all the buzz in the learning and development industry. Are the Century 21 courses microlearning?

PS: All of our courses, and how our library is structured, and when companies like Century 21 create their own courses — it’s critical that they focus on the important, salient bits that need to be learned and retained by the course taker — short, bite-sized segments.

This is important because people consume them in that way now. You’re taking a few minutes during breakfast to get a few minutes of learning in. At lunch, you have five more minutes to learn something.

Nowadays, the way we learn these things is via microlearning. It’s not being in a monolithic room sitting through two hours of training. It has to be done in bite-sized chunks. That’s the way you build a course, by making segments that can be consumed in that way. You have to weave in the key points quickly.

Interview by Lee Bob Black.

Mind Your Own Creative Business

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