As part of our blog series on the value of training and certification, we’re talking with some of our top Learning Partners who deliver Microsoft training and who currently deliver training for Business Applications. We kicked off the series with a post based on a conversation with representatives of Global Knowledge, the 2019 Microsoft Learning Partner of the Year, and followed that up with a blog post based on a conversation with Microsoft Gold Partner Koenig Solutions. Today’s post is based on an interview with Patrick Kersten, Program Director of Computrain and Chairman of the Board of the Leading Learning Partners Association (LLPA).
Leading Learning Partners Association (LLPA), which trains more than 500,000 students per year, is a unique training organization that grew out of innovation and cooperation. In 2009, after Microsoft representatives suggested that the many great local companies in Europe combine to share best practices and better serve customers, 12 companies started working together. By 2013, 20 training partners were cooperating and they joined forces formally as an association, quickly expanding to 32 countries and other continents. Today, LLPA comprises 32 well-known training centers spread over 55 countries in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia/Pacific, giving LLPA the largest global footprint of all Microsoft training partners. “Our strength is our global coverage,” Kersten says, “combined with our local approach in the 55 countries we’re located in.” For international projects, the association offers a single point of contact, with a centralized quality management and delivery team, but the input of local members makes it possible to “add the local flavor and culture to a training delivery—even in international projects. And we deliver this centralized virtual training in every language and every time zone.”
LLPA is not a company with franchises, Kersten explains, but a group of individual companies—each of which is a leading IT training company in its country or region, and most with 30 to 40 years of training experience. The association’s success depends in part on its selective rules for membership. It accepts only one member per country, which rules out competition and allows for sharing. Members may not be part of another group. And each member must be in good standing with Microsoft, LLPA’s most innovative and biggest partner. Many of its members have been Microsoft Silver or Gold Partners for more than 25 years.
Recognized as the 2020 Microsoft Learning Partner of the Year, LLPA has been closely aligned with Microsoft from its start as an association. It works closely with the Microsoft Learning leadership team. One LLPA staff person manages all its members’ central link to Microsoft Learning. And annual conversations with the Microsoft team let its people know what’s on the drawing board, so they can prepare training. The association also works with the Partner Advisory Board and with One Commercial Partner (OCP), which brings together partner-focused teams across the company to harness Microsoft partner expertise and knowledge—technical, marketing, business development, and programs—and to better recognize how customers are buying technology. “By working with Microsoft in these ways at the corporate level,” Kersten notes, “we know the direction and try to shape our training to be ready for new technology, so we can fill any skills gaps.”
In addition, all LLPA’s members work with local and regional Microsoft representatives, which enables them to think and innovate together. By working with the WE Partner Enablement team, for example, they created future-proof.net, and out of that, working with the Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise team, they created and set up an online portal called Skills Academy. Skills Academy is a learning platform for enterprise customers that can be customized and branded. LLPA works primarily with companies, not individuals, which means, as Kersten says, it “empowers those who empower every person and organization in the world to achieve more.” Approximately 185 companies now have their own branded learning portal. This idea started regionally but was picked up by local teams, so now local companies have their own Skills Academy portals to help keep their people skilled up. These academies now have more than 28,000 students with over 67,000 courses started. As one of the pilot partners for the Microsoft Learn Catalog API, LLPA is able to offer Microsoft Learn tracks on each customer-branded Skills Academy. It keeps innovating its Skills Academy, especially for cloud technology like Azure, Modern Workplace, and Dynamics 365, and expanding it by adding supporting content to the Microsoft Learn resources from third parties.
LLPA members offer all official Microsoft courses and certifications. The shift in Microsoft training the last two years from product-based to role-based has been very successful and well adopted by LLPA’s customers. The changes have been especially good for Dynamics 365 training. Ten years ago, Dynamics training was offered by Learning Partners—and then only by Dynamics partners. Two years ago, with the shift to role-based training and certification, it became part of the Microsoft Learn portfolio. Dynamics 365 training has benefited greatly from this. Being able to connect companies’ Skills Academy portals with Microsoft Learn made it easier to integrate Dynamics 365 training and for people to get access to training. Another advantage of the Skills Academy is the availability of training. For example, like all Dynamics 365 training, the core Dynamics 365 courses—Microsoft Power Platform + Dynamics 365 Core and Microsoft Dynamics 365: Core Finance and Operations—are part of the Skills Academy. That means that even if only one or two people in a company want to take those courses, they can: they don’t have to wait for a class to fill.
The Cloud Certification Circle is another innovative way LLPA supports learners’ success. The association found that when learners get an exam voucher at the end of a training and are told, “Take the exam whenever you want,” many don’t use the voucher. LLPA’s response was to create an end-to-end solution, the Cloud Certification Circle. They take a group of about 25 people, give them a kickoff session, and then train them online—nurturing people and stimulating them to keep learning throughout the training, all the way through to exam preparation and certification. “This way we know who’s preparing online,” Kersten explains, “who’s participating in the virtual instructor-led session, who’s doing final exam prep—so we can offer the support they need.” Certification rates for learners who participate in the Cloud Certification Circle are 80-plus percent, much higher than those without this support. A recent circle of 24 people earned more than 50 certifications, and their certification rate was 85 percent. “With this circle concept,” Kersten says, “we are also able to report to customers and vendors the result of training programs, in terms of certification success, which can give a justification of their investment.”
LLPA’s hybrid training model is part of the Cloud Certification Circle. It, too, makes training more responsive to learners’ needs. “We asked customers what they wanted,” Kersten says, “and built our training around that. We found that not everybody wants five days of training, either in-person or virtually. That’s why we pushed forward our hybrid model: learners train eight to 10 hours per week for four weeks and close off their training with a virtual instructor-led training.” That adaptive model, at the end of which learners are exam-ready, is one of the reasons Kersten believes LLPA won the Learning Partner of the Year Award this year.
When the pandemic hit in March, LLPA went 100 percent virtual in all of its countries. Its hybrid virtual model enabled it to do this quickly, as did its organization as an association of members with different histories and specialties. The association was able to scale its capacity overnight with 1,000 extra virtual seats. Because one of its members already had a great innovative hybrid delivery system set up, LLPA was able—with a great deal of technical innovation—to expand fast. After that, other members, each with its own specialty and experience, were able to expand their training capacity. And, with LLPA’s centralized delivery structure, these expanded offerings were made available to all learners.
LLPA offers other ways to train, besides its hybrid model. People can attend a bootcamp for a week (in countries that are not in COVID-19 lockdown). Bootcamps are led by two trainers and include a study room, breakout sessions, one-on-one training, and an exam room. Group dynamics facilitate the learning, Kersten emphasizes, because participants stimulate and motivate one other. Or learners can attend a Study Academy—a one- to two-day virtual instructor-led training that’s combined with a scheduling service that helps learners stay on track to complete their certification. The service provides them with an exam scheduling form that they fill out, and then the LLPA registration desk registers them. This makes the process easier for individuals and helps make sure everyone in a cohort takes the exam they registered for. The Project and Delivery team is dedicated to this nurturing of learners. It follows up with everyone, with personal contact, evaluation forms, and statistics on whether they passed the practice exam or actual exam. That way the association knows how many who took the exam passed it—statistics that help justify training to companies and individuals. This training—taking the learner through the whole certification journey—sets LLPA apart.
LLPA also offers many Microsoft Webinars, and their annual Global Cloud Skills Tour brings business leaders together to get ahead of the competition. For the 2020 tour, nine events on four continents were planned to respond to the skills gap and encourage lifelong learning. Unfortunately, the pandemic struck after four in-person events. But LLPA organized a virtual series of six presentations in six weeks across time zones in May and June, and hundreds of people gathered to discuss cloud benefits and opportunities, such as how Microsoft and LLPA could support customers.
Because each member has its own history, the association uses a mix of in-house and freelance instructors. The majority, however, are freelancers who are experienced consultants and solution architects who work closely with LLPA’s members, maintaining a good relationship. They’re “very good advisors,” Kersten stresses, “because they’re the ones with direct contact with our customers.” Another advantage of freelancers is that they keep up the rapid change cycle of cloud training, for example, for Azure and Dynamics 365. “We expect a lot more from trainers today than we used to,” he explains, “when products didn’t change as fast and you could give the same training three years in a row and you didn’t need to know how and why processes worked. Our trainers see change logs every day.”
Though Dynamics 365 training is currently about 5–10 percent of LLPA’s Microsoft offerings, that number is growing rapidly. Power BI training is also quickly becoming a front-runner. LLPA members offer all the Dynamics 365 courses. The two most popular are: Microsoft Dynamics 365 Fundamentals and Microsoft Power Platform + Dynamics 365 Core, which is being replaced by Microsoft Certified: Power Platform Functional Consultant Associate (Exam PL-200). And its members have specializations in all areas of Dynamics 365. The Skills Academy helps here to deliver those trainings. “Because of our global footprint and because the association was an early adopter of the Microsoft Learn Catalog API, we can show all those courses in all 185 customer portals. And we have trainers for all of them. If there aren’t enough participants for a Supply Chain Management training in one country, for example, we can combine countries into a group. That’s one of the big advantages of being an association of independent training companies—all of them bring their own expertise.”
The association’s unique structure, history, and commitments benefit LLPA members, customers, vendors, and learners. Kersten sums up LLPA’s mission this way: “We want to close the skills gap. We can help people. That’s what it’s all about.” The largest skills gap he sees right now is in cloud technology, though that need varies by region. In some, fundamentals are needed. In others, more advanced and specialized skills. LLPA’s multi-step approach, from learning to crawl (fundamentals), to learning to walk (certification), to learning to run (using the technology for specific capabilities)—offered around the world—enables it to deliver that mission with excellence.
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