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Custom Training vs. Off-the-Shelf: The Right Fit

This was originally published on on June 29, 2016.

Millions of Americans (me included) love a good burger from In-N-Out. You don’t have a lot of options, even with the secret menu, but it’s fast and convenient. They only make burgers a few ways, so you are in and out in no time.

But other times, when I’m craving something special, I’ll go to the new place down the street where you have tons of options on the burgers – different meat, cheese, spices, toppings, condiments. I can create something truly magnificent that’s exactly what I want at the time.

Each approach to burgers has its merits, and each is the right choice at different times. How much time do I have? How much money do I want to spend? Am I going to eat with anyone else and what are they in the mood for?

My burger choice proves that success comes in many flavors. The same is true of employee training. Custom training and off-the-shelf (OTS) training each have their own pros and cons. Your choice will depend on your business need and your resources. So, how do you go about figuring out which is the right choice for you?

What is Custom Training and Off-the-Shelf Training?

Custom training can be created with a vendor or by an internal training team. It will be made to fit the company’s brand, major initiatives and whatever specific business goals corporate training is being made to address.

Off-the-shelf training is typically sold by a third party and covers a specific, pre-set skill or program. OTS can be delivered through a variety of methods, but the company using it generally has limited or no ability to tailor the program to their audience.

The Pros   

Off-the-shelf training has three major benefits:


When you have identified that you need training, you need to look at your timeline. Do you need to have training in front of employees two weeks from now? The OTS is probably your best bet.


Because OTS training can be sold to many companies, the cost to produce it is spread out and less expensive to the purchaser. Off-the-shelf is often the right choice for small budgets.

Universal skills

OTS is the quick and easy way to teach generic workplace skills like time management, or specific programs and skills like HTML basics or Microsoft Word. This works especially well if most or all of the people taking the course are at roughly the same skill level.

As you might expect, custom training comes with a wider array of benefits:

Better fit-to-need
With custom training, the learning objectives are aligned with your business goals through analysis and design that’s made for you. It’s a 100% fit with the goal being a meaningful learning experience that generates real business results.

Better results

Because custom is a better fit, it’s also better able to change specific employee behaviors in ways that get you results. Custom training makes the learning real by tying objectives to real-life job scenarios, inspiring employees to apply the learning. You then feed your business’s bottom line as employee change behavior that actually impacts your goals.

Major initiatives

When you have a project too big to fail, you want to put the results in the hands of something that fully fits your needs. Custom training targets the unique particulars of your initiative and your company.

Company-specific processes or culture

Every company has its quirks and unique processes. Only custom training can truly cover the ins and outs of your organization and workflow. This is especially true for highly technical work.

Ability to brand

Many training departments see branding of their training as a nice-to-have, not need-to-have. However, by using a custom solution that reflects your brand values, voice and messaging, you ensure employees will reflect that to your customers.

The Cons 

Just as each approach has benefits, they also each come with drawbacks.

Off-the-shelf training typically has these issues:

Gaps to fill

If you have employees who are starting at different skill levels, or the training only covers a portion of a more complicated procedure, you are going to have to fill in the gaps. OTS will never address all of your business goals and needs.

Superfluous content

Because OTS is meant to cover a broad range of information in order to help as many people as possible, there’s often extra content that won’t be needed by every person. This can mean time spent on information some people already know or don’t need to know.

Lower completions

When training content isn’t specific to your company processes, employees aren’t always able to see the relevance and connect the dots on their own. This can lead to boredom, frustration and lower completion rates.

The variety of benefits custom training offers also come with a few costs:

More time spent

When you need to build something around specific business goals, it will take more time to create just what you need. Whether that time is spread over the course of 5 months or all-hands-on-deck for four weeks, it will take up valuable time in busy training departments.

Higher cost

Custom training is going to cost you more. Whether you hire a vendor or have to boost your internal team and pull resources from other departments, it’s going to take a bigger budget.

More buy-in needed

You know that bigger, more expensive projects mean more cooks in the kitchen. You’ll have to spend time early on getting people to buy in to the necessity of the project, and spend time along the way getting more approvals.

So, what’s the verdict?

When it comes to business goals, it can be tough to figure out whether something off-the-shelf will work for a project or if you need to go custom. Look over the pros and cons to see what sounds more like what you’re working with.

Off-the-shelf training definitely has its place in the training world, but the role OTS can play is limited. If you have a fairly homogenous audience, low budget or generic skills to teach, off-the-shelf is probably the right choice for you.

You should go custom if you have specific or technical needs unique to your company, a diverse audience and critical business goals. With customized courseware, you get exactly what you want.