The notion of a Netflix for learning has been floating about for a few years now. I have heard it both enthusiastically proposed and equally vigorously critiqued. The idea is attractive and beguiling to those who own and manage large quantities of learning content (whatever that is). Imagine an elegant and intuitive interface for your users to browse, swipe and enjoy your wares. All swipey and bingeable. What’s not to like?
I have been a sceptic of the idea personally, like many commentators. Netflix is a paid service for watching commercial quality entertainment, in the main. It’s one of the best examples of an opt-in service I can think of. This is where the analogy starts to wear thin: the content quality is, largely, high and often very high. It has become one of the most valued choices we have as our attention is so vigorously assailed from all quarters. We retreat to Netflix and enjoy doing so.
The vast majority of organisational learning stuff is just not like that. I doubt that it should be either. Our need to learn as we work is created by our requirement to find things out and get things done. It is most often a practical problem to solve over a short or long time period. This is quite different from the lean back, skip the intro, just one more episode impulse that Netflix has trained us in. This is one reason why YouTube is such a useful tool – it helps us get things done.
So, that’s a brief view of my scepticism for the idea: Netflix is much more than a content interface.
One of the crucial foundations of the success story of Netflix is the confidence in what audiences like. They know an enormous amount about what we chose to watch, watch a lot of, stop watching, watch repeatedly and who does it.
When they made the move into original content, the first big push was a US remake of an old British political drama, House of Cards. At the time it was an odd choice for what was seen as an unlikely success. The analysis within the business was that this story was a cult hit amongst a certain and significant type of viewer. Those viewers also watched similar programmes. The story could be regenerated for a contemporary US focused audience. With a strong cast, the viewers would go for it. It was a bet, for sure but not a wild or careless one.
From that initial confidence, further novelties could follow. The number of episodes for a season is the number to best tell the story. The length of a documentary is the right length to tell the story well. An on demand service does not need to be constrained by the broadcast model.
Does the learning world have the data on which to place bets with that level of confidence yet? I doubt it but that is where the value of the Netflix model lies.
Netflix has also worked steadily on the discovery experience. They have created weird genres of content that help us to identify what we have not yet watched – “Heartfelt TV Shows” anyone? They show us connections between programmes we like that we are unaware of. They know, possibly, more about our preferences than we do from our behaviour and millions of others like us. (They, perhaps, also know that we are less unique than we would like to be).
Does the learning world have the sensibility and data literacy to offer navigation and discovery in that way? I doubt that too but the expectation is now set for us with all content discovery.
As their confidence grew in commissioning, Netflix were free to cherry pick the most popular categories. Comedy, action, thrillers etc. Documentary content arrived later as their subscriber base grew and the investment could be made with confidence of reach and preference. Now Netflix has a reputation for documentary films which, only a few years ago, would have seemed quite unlikely.
The learning world might choose compliance, induction and leadership as the cherries to pick. Those get bums on seats, don’t they. Not items of choice though, I suspect.
Netflix is now in an unfamiliar position of having to respond to genuine competitive threats. Having defined a new consumer market for streamed viewing content, it is facing some stiff competition from Apple, with the largest cash pile the corporate world has seen and Disney+, with an impressive catalogue of shows no longer available on the Netflix platform. (And little old Brit Box too, of course).
The learning world has not seen that same rush of well heeled competitors to the content library markets. Having said that, Microsoft now owns LinkedIn Learning and Google have developed education channels in YouTube for many years. Neither have done this without the evidence that there is value there for audiences and content makers. That evidence and the judgment to gather and create insights from it is what a Netflix for learning should be created from.
What do you think?